Houndmouth: The Next Great Rock and Roll Band?

houndmouth

When the four-piece country-roots-rock band Houndmouth struck up the opening bars of “Penitentiary” at the Grey Eagle Music Hall in Asheville, NC, last Sunday (Nov 10th), the middle-aged woman standing next to me turned and said, “I’m attracted to men; men are who I think about, but I’m ready to sleep with that keyboardist.”  She was talking about Houndmouth’s Katie Toupin.

I completely understood, because here’s the thing: Toupin is gorgeous.  On this night, her silver-studded shorts and black shirt knotted above her navel showed off her long legs and a flat belly and a cascade of brown hair that could star in its own shampoo commercial.  She is animated on stage, moving to the downbeat or musical crescendo, and her hair whips around her, strands splay across her face, and she beams a bright white smile at her bandmates as the songs move along.  No doubt it’s alluring.  Toward the end of their set, Toupin slid behind drummer Shane Cody’s kit to play one of the band’s new songs and then picked up Zak Appleby’s bass to cover Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”  That same woman standing next to me was about to speak, but she didn’t need to.  Katie Toupin is not a sex symbol, but as a symbol of allure and feminine sensuality, as a woman who tosses her hair in pleasure at the keyboard and who sits comfortably behind the drum kit and pulls the bass guitar strap over her head easily, she is every Rock and Roll fanboy’s wet dream.

Lest one think that Toupin’s three bandmates formed a band, felt the need for a keyboard player, posted an ad on Craigslist, then licked their chops when they saw her walk through the door, it was Toupin and guitarist Matt Myers who started out playing acoustically at local restaurants.  Myers had also teamed up with Appleby to busk on the streets of New Albany, Indiana, but they were busted a few times for lacking a permit.  All four have known each other since their childhood in southern Indiana, but Cody had been in New York interning in sound engineering.  When he heeded Myers’ request to return home, the four friends worked out the song “Penitentiary” (which Myers and Toupin had begun in their restaurant days).  Recording one night in Cody’s basement, the band were unable to remove the sound of the neighbor’s barking dogs from the track.  Cody said the recording was useless because it contained too much Houndmouth.  The band name was born, as was the descriptor of their sound.  Cody put a cleaner version of Penitentiary on SoundCloud, and Houndmouth were picked up quickly by Rough Trade records, home of Alabama Shakes, the Decemberists, and Yim Yames.  Restaurant work and busking gave way to a full-time gig, and Houndmouth, after honing their sound on the summer festival circuit, have been headlining their own tour across the Midwest, the Southeast, and New England this fall.

As the foursome, they have become a compelling live act.  Houndmouth are four people who balance each other really well on stage.  Their collaboration seems effortless, their banter is natural – they genuinely seem to like each other and like being in front of an audience.  Toupin is set up parallel with Myers and Appleby on stage.  Credit must be given to the band for not exploiting Toupin’s allure, putting her at center stage or renaming themselves Katie and the Houndmouths.  She is one member of a band that plays together as a band, sharing roles equally.  All four members are mic-ed for interstitial banter and song introductions.  Toupin takes lead vocals on a few songs, duets with Myers on a few others, sings harmonies and backing vocals on the rest.  As a vocalist, she does not blow anyone away; she is no Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes), for example.  But she’s got just a touch of Emmylou Harris’ southern twang in her, so when she sings that she’s “got my gin tucked in my purse/I keep my heart locked in gold/So I won’t ever get hurt,” you tend to believe her.  When she’s placing backing harmonies sporadically through a tune, she complements lead singer Matt Myers’ squeaky tenor well.  Her keyboard chords do the same.  All four members, in fact – none necessarily masters of their instruments – are integral to the band’s sound without being dominating.  Matt Myers is able, as the only guitar in the band, to fill the speakers with that Stratocaster sound; Appleby and Cody use their bass and drums respectively to keep the songs on track; Toupin uses her keyboard as a tonal instruments that helps anchor the songs.  Added together, these components make for some really catchy tunes – impressive for such a young band – as evidenced on such crowd pleasers as “Come on, Illinois” and “Ludlow.”

Look, Rock and Roll is sexy (thank you very much, Rolling Stones).  Women have been swooning over preening men for decades.  But in the twenty-first century rock has become more introverted, more intellectual, and, quite frankly, less sexy.  It is not a common present-day occurrence to be turned on by an alluring presence on stage – particularly a compelling female one.  Sure, there are plenty of beautiful women making music these days, but they are usually the face of the band (Sharon Jones) or they are an entity unto themselves (Neko Case) or they are entrapped in the very unsexy folk world (c.f. The Civil Wars) – or, worse, they are part of the Pop Machine (whose examples are too numerous to count), which is not sexy but instead sexist, voyeuristic, and exploitative.  An attractive and talented female who is just one of the guys is, in the Rock and Roll world, extremely rare.

Which is why Houndmouth could be the next great rock band.  But without Toupin at the keys, Houndmouth are just another band, and bearded musicians and young guys with skinny arms and a Fender Strat are playing clubs and bars in every town in America on every night of the year.  Look, it’s not lost on me that Houndmouth’s unique make-up is an indictment of the music industry’s phallocentrism, and so I understand I’m being hypocritical in promoting Houndmouth as possibly the next great rock band partly because of Toupin’s holding her own with the guys.  And I know that even saying “holding her own” is confirmation of my chauvinism and my implication that it’s a surprise a woman can hold her own.  I agree that it says a lot about the state of women in rock music and the state of the larger culture that Toupin’s presence in the band is an anomaly and not the norm.  If it were more common, though, I don’t think I’d be so fast to anoint them.  It’s true, these guys (all four of them) have songwriting chops and a great presence live; but unlike most of their contemporaries, they also have on stage someone who is going to draw the ear – and the eye – of the casual listener.

As Houndmouth’s set at the Grey Eagle was coming to a close, that woman in her forties stood swaying to their music.  As a casual fan of music who had never heard of Houndmouth before that night, she had been pulled in from the opening song and her attention to the music – though she didn’t know a single song – had not wavered through their set.  This is the mark of a great live band – that they can engage a casual listener so fully in their music.  If Houndmouth make it big (and I hope for all the right reasons that they do) they might be able to pull rock back from its present brooding state.  Because Rock and Roll is sexy, and even sexier when a band like Houndmouth – and someone like Toupin – is a part of it.

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Neko Case’s The worse things get, the harder I fight, the harder I fight, the more I love you: a response

Sometimes we hear a piece of music, or read a certain novel, or watch a movie, that, given the state of our lives at the moment, hits us in just the right way.  Neko Case’s new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You is that album for me right now.  Neko (do you think she’d mind that I just call her Neko?  Her music has been so close to me for so long, I feel like we’re on a first name basis) wrote this album in reaction to the death of her parents (to whom she was not that close) and her grandmother and to her subsequent depression.  With what I have been going through personally and professionally over the past year, The Worse Things Get is hitting me squarely in the chest; it is, for me, a profound, poignant, and powerful expression of how we move in and through depression.

In the interest of full disclosure, Neko Case was one of my favorite artists before her new album came out.  I can pinpoint the three moments that comprised my falling in love her as a musician and artist:

1) the first time I heard this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0vk5SGmw3w

2) when I heard the lyrics to her song “The Next time you say Forever.”  The next lyric is “I will punch you in your face.”

3) and when she appeared on NPRs Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (http://www.npr.org/2009/07/11/106504004/not-my-job-neko-case)

So I have been anticipating the release of this album, which comes four years after her previous one, the fantastic Middle Cyclone.  I am not alone in this anticipation; the music press has been eagerly awaiting this release.  I think it’s safe to say that there was some pressure on Middle Cyclone‘s follow-up.  True to form, Neko didn’t bow to pressure; she has made an album that does justice to her entire oeuvre both by augmenting it and expanding it, but this is a record that cuts much closer to the bone than anything else she’s ever written.  It pulls no punches.  (And dammit, don’t we love when artists [I’m looking at you, Wilco] eschew what should be and produce what is their truth, regardless of how it will play – even though it usually plays better than cow-towing to the establishment ever did?)

Whether or not I had ever heard Neko’s music before, I think I would have embraced this album upon hearing it, for three reasons: firstly, lyrically, Neko Case is writing on a different plane than most other contemporary pop/rock musicians. Secondly, her music defies definitions; while she cut her chops in the country/alt-country vein, she is drawing from a variety of influences in her music.  Thirdly, she has constructed the album as an artist would, so that it is in essence a concept album, though I don’t know if she would call it so.

The Worse Things Get is a compelling listen – and makes her previous albums more compelling – as it stays true to her talents in crafting hooky songs and lyrics that turn your head.  But unlike on previous albums, where Neko has enjoyed the craft of character study – people she obviously finds interesting, though they are not necessarily her – she has flipped the coin over for The Worse Things Get.  The album is riddled with interesting characters, no doubt, but one can tell those characters are rooted in Neko’s experience, as opposed to her imagination.  Take the first three tracks, songs that grow respectively and incrementally more intense:  In “Wild Creatures” Neko wrestles with her mother’s memory/shadow with lines like: “Hey little girl would you like to be the king’s pet or the king? I’d choose odorless and invisible but otherwise I would choose the king, even though it sounds melodious; there’s no mother’s hand to quiet me.”  Neko’s lyrical skill is on full display here, with what is unsaid being equally important to what is said:  a girl choosing to be odorless and invisible, presumably so she won’t be found out by an abusive hand – an interpretation bolstered by that final line.  Exorcising some demons, I’d say, which she is doing as well in the album’s second track, “Night Still Comes,” – though these demons are her depression.  Look at the imagery she creates in the middle section of the song, when she holds the tension of the music and lyrics together:

Did they poison my food? Is it cause I’m a girl? If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle? I’m gonna go where my urge leads no more. Swallowed, waist-deep, in the gore of the forest A boreal feast, let it finish me, please. Cause I revenge myself all over myself. There’s nothing you can do to me.

I’m still mulling over that one (“I revenge myself all over myself”), but for those of us who have been through depression, that forest imagery is spot-on.  She follows “Night Still Comes” with the album’s hardest rocker, “Man,” with the lyric “I’m a man, you’ll have to deal with me.  And my proxy is mine; you’ll deal with me directly.”

My eight year-old daughter and five year-old son can pick out lyrics from a Neko Case song and it resonates with them for days.  “Never turn your back on Mother Earth” (from Middle Cyclone) was a refrain we heard for weeks on end.  Phrases that have stuck around with this new release:  “If you only knew/what my candied fists could do.”  “I see your gun is drawn with the safety on.  You can walk me back to my hotel like it was home.” “I’ve been sailing so long I’ve become the shore.” “I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready.”

I’ve often thought that the book group of which I’m a member should do Neko Case lyrics one month.  She deserves to be in print, and it will be criminal if one day she is not in the Norton Anthology next to Dylan and Springsteen – she blows them both out of the water.  But it might be a disservice to her as an artist to only concentrate on her lyrics.  She is a gifted crafter of song, winding them tightly around carefully placed layers of sound.  Because of her lyrical gifts, it’s hard to always distinguish verse/chorus in her songs, and musical interludes and guitar solos seem a pleasant surprise in these songs, coming when and where they do.  She isn’t afraid to extend a measure if it’s going to create the proper mood (refer back to “Night Still Comes” and the tension she creates with that extended boreal verse), but as with her lyrics, she knows that the beauty of the song lies is what’s unsaid – or unplayed: Neko is gifted at economy and precision – six of the twelve songs on The Worse Things Get clock in at under three minutes – and nowhere on this record does she extend a song past its usefulness.

Credit too must be given to Kelly Hogan, who has been Neko’s backing vocalist for years now and who knows where to fill in.  Her harmonies fit Neko’s melodies, and those two voices together create some wonderful moments of – depending on the song – passion, awareness, joy, clarity.  But instead of droning on and butchering the use of musical terminology, I should just let a couple songs speak for themselves:

Beyond all this is the sense of the record as a whole being a revelation of coming through depression, and I sit here waist deep in my boreal night and tears well in my eyes as she puts words to what I have felt, from “Calling Cards (“…Singing we’ll all be together, even when we’re not together with our arms around each other, with our faith still in each other”) and “Night Still Comes,” with a voice that is so resonant and focused and clear and powerful (I won’t stoop to even compare her voice to another singer).  And of course the title of the album: “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.”  Isn’t that what those of us who have trudged through that forest are searching for: that love of self that, perhaps, is only possible after having gone through what Neko is singing about through the course of the album?  I feel the tears in my eyes as I write that, and then “Ragtime” comes on, tying up that journey, and I smile as she says – and dammit I know she’s speaking only to me, holding me in my grief and telling me there is a way through – “I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready; I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.”  Thank you, Neko; I will too.