Full disclosure: If you’ve spent any time at a Mockingbird conference recently, you probably spied a bespectacled, semi-bearded man behind a guitar named Sam Bush. You may have even noticed how absurdly talented he is. Well, last month the man in question’s band The Hill and Wood released their long-gestating self-titled debut record, and ever since, it’s been serving as the soundtrack of the Mockingbird office. We even had to call in a sub to compile this month’s playlist; otherwise, it would have simply been a bunch of Hill and Wood tracks. The record is simply that good, and something we can really get behind, nepotism or no (thank God!). Take the second track, “The Call,” as a case in point:
Indie aficionados will catch plenty of references: echoes of Fleet Foxes, The Walkmen, Wilco and Sufjan abound. But the personality of the record is fully its own, and a lot more fun than some of those influences might imply. The clever production touches and beautiful harmonies by Juliana Daugherty wouldn’t be nearly as compelling, however, were it not for the uniformly inspired songwriting. Unlike a lot of what comes under the increasingly obsolete “indie” label, the arrangements here complement the melodies rather than pretentiously obscure them, lending the proceedings a real immediacy. In fact, it’s difficult to choose a highlight – the whole thing coheres remarkably well for a first record. Which isn’t to say The Hill and Wood repeats itself, even remotely. Each of the ten songs takes the band somewhere different: “ICSWYW” might be the most explicitly poppy song, “Little Omaha” incorporates what sounds like a mariachi horn section, “Let Us Risk the Ship, Ourselves and All” rides a propulsive melody to a glorious climax, while on “Something Comes from Nothing” and “The Call” they pioneer a convincing rock sound all their own. Then, in the quiet moments, Sam’s choirboy vocals takes center stage in a series of longer form melodies that could almost be described as hymn-like, such as “Vacant Space” and “The Disciple”. “Futile Workhorse” sounds like the kind of song you wish Thom Yorke still wrote.
As for the lyrics, there’s a non-insecure Gospel undercurrent to Sam’s poetry. It’s unforced and honest, lovely in its sincerity and insight, yet not in any way tacked on – no one would mistake this for a “Christian” record. In fact, if you didn’t know where Sam was coming from, you might not even notice. But the profundity is there if you know where to look: passivity is a running theme, for example, death and resurrection haunt the relationship songs, and there’s an allergy to edifice throughout, a self-effacing resistance to any and all emotional whitewashing that gives the record its edge. Yet these songs are not without their moments of wide-eyed wonder and uplift. The closing trio of “Let Us Risk the Ship, Ourselves and All,” “Something Comes From Nothing” and “All’s Well That Ends” are almost defiantly hopeful, albeit a hope rooted in surrender. The closing lines of “All’s Well”, the closing lines of the record itself say it all:
If you fall back in fear/ and the future’s as clear/ as the sea before dawn/
Wait for the world to turn/ the darkness can only hold on for so long/
The sun will rise/to your surprise/ all by itself/ without your help.
Order The Hill and Wood over at their website and all of your holiday dreams will come true. Better yet, if you live on the East Coast, you can witness them in concert this week: