Wonder what a folk rock album inspired by the Civil War, American Impressionism, and rural living would sound like? Probably not what you’d expect, probably a little better. To find out for sure, you can listen to the debut full-length album from Hanging Hills, The Great Divide. When I reviewed their eponymous EP last year, I was confused as to why the cover art was a Civil War general. It all starts to make more sense on this album. The band seems to have a love for all things old-timey; there are themes of ancestors, American history, and battles in the lyrics. They’ve also got a thing for the natural world; for one, “I’m Not Going Home” describes the seasons around the United States, plus the band took their name from a mountain range in their home state of Connecticut that has its own set of old-timey legends. As you can guess, this all comes together to make an album with well-thought out lyrics and a relaxed yet lush sound.
Hanging Hills turned to Kickstarter to help fund this album, which meant that extra splurges to make the album more lush were now affordable, and it shows. The band hired artists to play pedal steel, organ, and strings, so the songs are rich and layered without being overworked. There are upbeat songs, though nothing about this album seems fast-paced, as each note is spaced out and there is hang time between each strum. Even so, there are enough layers of instruments and enough power in each note to maintain interest. The album doesn’t feel drawn out, just relaxed. I’m a big supporter of including the banjo in more songs, and Hanging Hills features one on “The Great Divide,” which serves as both the opening and title track. Somehow even with a banjo and a pedal steel in the same song, the slow pace, dramatic percussion, and sweeping backing vocals keep this from veering too far into country territory. “The Crossing” is an instrumental track and shows where the Kickstarter money went. It’s lush and well-constructed, including many of those extra instruments from the hired hands. There’s something luxurious about this album even though it is mostly made of the same simple elements that make up most folk rock music these days, like guitar, drums, and the occasional organ bit. It can’t all be the pedal steel, so it likely comes down to good arrangements.
The vocals are good, though the spacing can be a little odd at times; for example, on “The Great Divide,” it takes three very drawn out lines to say “my great/grand/fa-ther.” I felt like I had to sit, wait, and piece together what they were trying to say when the words (or parts of words) were spaced out like that. Some songs feature harmonies that bring Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to mind (“The Things I Long to Be” especially). The backing vocals add more than sound, they add feeling. The echoey lead and backing vocals work perfectly on “This Strange Life,” making you feel like something strange is indeed going on. On “Here Come the Troops,” the backing vocals convey the excitement and hopefulness of the first half of the song, and the lack of them in the second half conveys disillusionment (see more on that below).
If you have any interest in the Civil War, the lyrics to “Here Come the Troops” are pretty neat. My best guess is that it’s told from the perspective of a civilian spectator at the first battle at Bull Run. He’s one of the northerners who dressed up and brought a picnic to watch the battle, but then had to walk home along the same road as the retreating Union army. The song matches the mood a spectator would have felt that day; it’s upbeat with high-spirited cymbals and hopeful vocals at the beginning and the lyrics speak of prettying oneself and hurrying to see the army march into town. It’s all exciting as the general smiles at him and he can hear the drums and fife. A little more than halfway through, the mood changes and things get a bit darker. The cymbals crash, the guitar takes over where the banjo left off. The lyrics tell of having no where to go but the road and how the disillusioned spectator has to tell himself that he never gave a damn about the soldiers (turns out watching people kill each other isn’t as fun as it sounds, even with a picnic lunch). There is so much history and thought packed into this song that I can only imagine the references I’m missing in the other songs (I’m a Canadian, so my knowledge of American history is limited to what I’ve learned from TV). There is more than history in the lyrics, though. There are ponderings on life in “The Things I Long to Be” and “This Strange Life”; for some reason, “This City Life” sounds like it could belong in the next Muppets movie if Kermit needed a musical number to explain why he couldn’t adjust to the city even though Miss Piggy had her heart set on living there. Come on, “the city lights blind me from the stars” sounds like a Kermit-esque complaint, does it not?
At the very least, the songs are pleasant and well-crafted. With attentive listening (and maybe a little background research), they tell rich stories. So for lush, relaxed folk rock with a historic twist, try Hanging Hills.