Musical Friends and a Review of Glen Worple

The problem of the musical friend seems to be on ongoing threat. Since high school, I’ve attended more than one not so great show/birthday party, was given various demos, and even attended a jam session or two, all in the name of friendship. These events ranged from the purely awful to the mediocre, and then once in a great while, there would be a truly inspired musical event.

I’d like to think this was a benevolent act on my part, supporting friends and their art, but deep down inside, I knew that if I went, then maybe, maybe I could pride myself in being one of those hip people who not only listen to emerging music, but the one who discovers it. And wouldn’t it be great to say something along the lines of: “Oh yeah, I used to party with Led Zeppelin all through high school. Even went on a band tour with them.”

Oops, that was a movie (see Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous).

In high school, I was never cool enough to go to underground shows, let alone touring with bands. Instead, I relied on my friend Kate’s mix tapes as my introduction to new music, and then threw my own mixes to anyone came in near enough proximity to be forced to listen to one. And then there was that stint as a radio show producer and DJ. I guess I still do send out unsolicited mix tapes to whichever friends will acknowledge them, but that’s pretty infrequent at best.

When I first started college, I thought the garage band was a thing of the past, a purely high school phenomenon until a new threat emerged: the rock ensemble. Having no garage to practice in nor a mother’s minivan to haul around gear, they were “collectives” producing music and drinking beer, order reversible. Often touted as “noise rock” and relying on the artistic snobbery of the overly-intellectual, these friends perfected a new threshold for tolerance with their monotone vocals, incoherent drumming, and 20 minute guitar solos. “Hadn’t they been a lot better before?” we asked ourselves, once assembled in some dingy basement or warehouse, the only seating arrangements dirty mattresses.

Maybe it was our own incomprehension and lack of appreciation for true art that demanded a bourgeois structure of musical coherence, but I think that if I had ever thought these bands were good, it was simply due to the fact that I had had a lot to drink the last time I saw them perform. So, when a bass line became one horrendous mess of chords one night in June 2009, I slipped out to the bar across the street, taking a few casualties with me, vowing that art no longer deserved my friendship.

When I got the latest request from a friend to listen to their latest demo, I immediately thought, “I don’t know if I can handle another musical friend.” But I thought I should be a good friend, that musical wannabe still lurking under the surface, and more importantly, I knew that they would support whatever artistic endeavor I next undertook. So I listened. And listened. And listened.

Glen Worple, the first album by Hetch Hetchy, is a complex and interesting set of songs that reflects the musical fluidity of post-rock melodies while entwining ballad-esque lyrics and the disjointed chords of garage rock. Named after the controversial northern California dam, they delve into an orchestral sound without becoming grandiose, as if mirroring a desolate landscape and the certain humbleness incurred by the realization of the vastness of space and sound (listen to the song “Tincture”).

The band lists various influences and while I could definitely hear some similarities in some of the chord structure of “Bony-Legs” to one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ songs, what makes Hetch Hetchy interesting is their inclusiveness of diverse sounds. It seems to have allowed them to evolve beyond the traditional “well they sound like (meaning they really should cover) whatever band.”

Having now listened to Glen Worple three times, I feel confident in saying that I like it. Like any first attempt, there are some issues with the overall album, especially in the song order. While “The Sea It Ate Us Up” is one of my favorite tracks, it does not seem like the best choice for the opening the album with its long moments of silence–it doesn’t quite set the right tone for the album as a whole. It’s a song to end on, not to begin with. I’m tempted to play the album on shuffle until I find an order I really like.

Several songs like “R. Orinoco” also have lead vocals that need some rehashing. I love the moments where the singer keeps repeating “look you in the eyes” and the back-up singer begins whistling, but the initial vocals are distracting, oddly un-harmonized and out of place, all of which make it harder to fully absorb the lovely moments that come later. When vocals overlap as in “A Ghostly Green Light,” there was an unintended dissonance that could be improved, again by a little more polish or maybe better mixing overall.

I kept wishing the lead singer did not strain so much and either flushed out his raw voice, acknowledging its imperfections, or had practiced a little more. Unfortunately, these issues made them album harder to listen to then I would have liked and although some albums make their listener struggle to get to the eventual reward, I did not necessarily feel it heightened my musical awareness of any hidden conceptual elements.

Overall, I think that Hetch Hetchy creates some very interesting moments and as a band, I think they have promise. With any artistic endeavor, I want to tell them to trust their instincts though – the songs that are the simplest and least overworked are the best. Labeled as “ambient indie,” this is the kind of music that captures that melancholic feel of a long drive alone in the vastness of California. It feels truly American without ever stumbling into Americana and that’s what I like about it. It feels raw in a highly sophisticated way, just like the odd syntax of the song “The Sea It Ate Us Up,” and I enjoy wallowing in their sound in a very Proustian way.

And thanks, guys, for willing to subject yourselves to your friends and their critiques.

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