Album Review: Dark Hip Falls – Seventy Four

Dark Hip Falls“I took the path of the crow”, sings Dark Hip Falls frontman Tim Mendonsa midway through his band’s debut album Seventy Four, which was released back in early December. The lyric is borrowed from the old idiom “as the crow flies”, referring to the shortest and most direct possible distance between two points. Actually, for this Seattle sextet, the path they have followed has been considerably more erratic. However, if an album the caliber of  Seventy Four was to be the final destination, then all of the detours were worthwhile.

Any band with a three-guitar lineup, a keen, yet somber melodic sense, and a lead singer with a tenor vocal range is bound to garner some Radiohead comparisons and Dark Hip Falls have clearly been influenced by Thom Yorke and company. But their sound has been further informed by groups like The National, St. Vincent, and a variety of 20th Century avant garde composers. They began their journey under the moniker of Sad Face and released two well-received E.P.s: “Gosh Darn” in 2011 and “Cheer Yourself Up” in 2012. Despite a burgeoning fan base in the Seattle underground rock community and a smattering of radio airplay, the group made the bold decision to jettison both the name Sad Face AND the majority of the songs which they had written under it. After rechristening themselves Dark Hip Falls (taking the new name from a lyric in the song “The Electrician” by noted avant garde baritone Scott Walker) they began writing the material that would eventually become “Seventy Four”.

Crafting an album is, ideally, an endeavor that goes far beyond writing a crop of good songs and recording them. For an album to stand as a single artistic statement it should engage the listener at the onset and leave them feeling as though they have gone somewhere or experienced something at the conclusion. To that end, a certain measure of thematic unity among the songs may be called for, yet that unity must be peppered with enough contrast, be it in terms of tempo, key centers, or dynamics, to prevent all of the tracks from sounding alike. Dark Hip Falls strikes this balance beautifully on Seventy Four. Each song sounds as though it was written specifically for this recording, yet by making the loud volume moments roar (which any rock group worth its Marshall stacks can do) but also by making the quiet moments whisper, the ensemble avoids the sort of “sonic sameness” trap into which many other young bands fall. The album commences with the unorthodox “Tell Me That You”.  Less a traditional song than a tonal cluster, this brief, introductory piece would be an ideal musical pairing with a time-lapse video of the life of a rose (or perhaps the life of a relationship). It begins with just one clean-toned guitar as the stem first emerges from the soil, adds drums, bass, and feedback as the flower blossoms and lives its all-too-brief moment of splendor, then the instruments fade and decay until all that remains is Mendonsa’s stark, lonesome voice to bridge the listener into the second tune “Paper Bag”. This song is a study in restraint as the majority of the verses are sung on just one pitch. This minimalist approach builds a sense of tension in the listener that is satisfyingly released in the shimmering guitar flourishes of the chorus. The following track, “Cocaine Design” is the clear winner if one is listening for a “single”. The hook-laden melody and anthemic chorus belie the dark subject matter and make the song seem tailor-made for radio airplay. (See video below)

Seventy Four keeps the listener guessing throughout.  From the quasi-industrial clamor of “In My Eye” to the soothing soundscape of “Lam 2:  Red Hands” to the odd time signature groove of “Lifecast” Dark Hip Falls employs a seemingly inexhaustible battery of musical and sonic devices without sounding contrived or like “math rock”. One of the record’s most fascinating moments occurs in the closing number “Mr. Dim” in which bassist Max Larkin repeats a series of three note permutations while the voices harmonize above his bass line and drummer Joe Jellema creates a gamelan-like effect with a variety of auxiliary percussion instruments. It is a hypnotic musical sequence that owes a far greater debt to Steve Reich and Phillip Glass than it does to Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood and it masterfully sets up the final cathartic ending to Seventy Four.

Tim Mendonsa – Vocals, guitar, and bass
Joel Katzenberger – Guitar and backing vocals
Nick Mendonsa – Guitar and backing vocals
Max Larkin – Bass, guitar, and backing vocals
Joe Jellema – Drums and Percussion
Johnny Mendoza – Keyboards and additional guitars

Seventy Four can be heard and purchased at http://darkhipfalls.bandcamp.com/album/seventy-four  or at www.darkhipfalls.com.

 

About Michael Puglisi

Michael Puglisi was born in St. Louis, MO and began playing the guitar at the age of 13. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Webster University in 2002, as well as a Master of Music degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 2004. After spending several years as adjunct music faculty for St. Louis Community College, Michael relocated to Seattle, WA in 2007 where he helped found the band French Letters (www.frenchlettersmusic.com), which combines rock and roll, Americana, jazz, and poetry. Michael continues to play guitar and write music for French Letters, who have released two critically-acclaimed albums: In Tongues in 2011 and Here There Be Serpents in 2013 with a third album due out sometime this summer.