To their musical credit (and likely career chagrin), Florida’s Holopaw have never been an easy act to pin down. Three previous LPs were lumped in with the country rock or freak folk genres because accents from both —say, a finger-picked acoustic or steel guitar — made cameos in the band’s eclectic, laid-back oeuvre. That gave desperate rock critics familiar handles to shorthand, but neither was very accurate.
To boot, the Gainesville band led by singer John Orth sounds about as un-Florida as you could imagine – not a whiff of Petty pop here, let alone Southern rock, punk or metal, the Panhandle’s other staples. That’s never been truer than on their career-best latest, whose wintry melodies and cool, intricate textures suggest northern climes or desolate high deserts.
That’s ironic, as the LP was recorded in the middle of summer amidst night swims and late-night recording sessions in St. Augustine. Ostensibly a song-cycle about prep school kids spread over an 11 tracks, the close quarters become the sites of devotion, betrayal, communion (or near-communion), and abject loneliness. But relating to that isn’t required to enjoy this rich recording.
“Oh, the earth shall tremble, the earth shall shake,” Orth sings on the opening track “Academy,” and Holopaw does their best, for a sedate band, to make that happen. Guitar chords crash and set off percussion explosions, until synth strings eventually lift the melody, adorned with glock chimes, above the maelstrom. The song’s only 99 seconds long, and the nine-word refrain (which returns in quieter form on closer “Golden Years”) comprise all the vocals – yet it’s about as an effective an opening as you’ll hear.
It also segues perfectly into “Golden Sparklers,” whose reverbed guitar lines may first suggest the Clientele’s mellow pastorals before massive press-rolls and kick-drum triplets dial up the tension around Orth’s dramatic vocals. Like most of the record, the hooks here are subtle, singalong choruses rare – yet the melodies come over so crystalline and the dynamics are so well-measured that these intricate songs maintain the illusion of being accessible pop songs.
Or maybe it’s no illusion at all. “Discotheque,” another track with a refrain that’s echoed elsewhere, suggests a pop song Morrissey might’ve penned if he’d been backed by early Calexico rather than the Smiths. Over a lonesome steel guitar cry, subtle vibes and minor chords that embody melancholia, Orth bemoans “the many reasons to be lonely on this night” when the discotheque is not open, only “testing its lights.” A gentle acoustic ushers in “Diamonds,” but within 90 seconds it bursts into bold primary colors, all thumping beats and cymbal crashes, insistent guitar lines and aggressive keyboard parts. “Even the dramatic guitar rock of “Infidels” feels like it could’ve spun off Radiohead’s The Bends with too much squinting.
Orth’s voice is unquestionably a major player – imagine James’ Tim Booth or a shier Freddie Mercury fronting Sea and Cake over the shifting tempos and sparkling guitars of the 6-minute “We Are the Virgin Snow.” But if this is a hurdle, get over it – Orth’s vocals fit the band’s luscious songs, whether they’re highlighted in simple arrangements (the chiming acoustic guitar-driven “Bedfellows Farewell”) or majestically cross-hatched as they are on the orchestral version of “The Lights From the Disco.”
Holopaw’s previous records now seem like they were all headed toward the beauty of these 11 songs, easily the band’s strongest work. Of course, it remains just as unlikely that this LP will emerge atop the Internet masses as it rightfully should. But that doesn’t diminish its beauty one iota.
DOWNLOAD: “Academy” “Diamonds” “Discotheque.” –JOHN SCHACHT