Ah Holly Fam’ly – [Album]

Sunday, 13 September 2009

I’ll be honest. I do not know these guys. Which is a point of contention for a music reviewer; you pride yourself on knowing obscure groups that no one around you knows. It’s how you get cool points, and for a girl who spends her days shut in an apartment eating Chee-tos and writing notes about music tracks, like so many other reviewers out there, I need all the points I can get.  But this band from Portland (the no. 1 city for indie music I think you should listen to) is unknown to me, and I’m guessing a few thousand other people.

After this debut album, that’ll change.

The Family—and they are a family, albeit a surrogate one. There’re eight people in this little ensemble—present folksy experimentalism in the same ballpark of M. Ward or Andrew Bird. Slow, low-paced acoustic guitars are routinely paired with lo-fi vocals, courtesy the married crew of Becky Dawson and Jeremy Faulkner. This base is routinely added, changed, deconstructed and re-imagined by the shifting addition of flutes, cellos, clarinets and anything else you might find when raiding a marching band room.

Too much? Maybe, but it works.

Opening with “Young Veins,” Ah Holly Fam’ly is honest up front about the sound of this album. The rest of the tracks will roughly share this sleepy tempo, they will have this wafting, grandiose sound. So be warned. If that doesn’t scare you off, you’ll probably enjoy the almost-vintage-sounding orchestral opening, with whistling flutes and instruments aged to perfection. Dawson and Faulkner make use of their juxtaposed vocals—hers high and piercing, his lower, strained, almost gritty. Together they sound ghostly and ethereal as they crank out homespun lyrics. *Note: check the lyrics on “Loneliest City.” I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. 

And points to this group for knowing how to make use of a wide array of instruments. Instead of getting bogged down in them, they move effortlessly with them, weaving sounds and solos together without letting things get boring. Tracks like “Lucky Peak” have the violins and flutes bounce and flit around as the heavy drums and bass create a durable stage to work from. It’s simultaneously heavy and driven and light and breezy, like cute Disney characters marching military-style. “Salt of the Century” has a very Soviet Russia feel to it, slow and steady, and sad. Like unforgiving winters. The violins whine and wane, the guitars and percussion drag their feet along behind, and Faulkner sounds like he has no strength to sing. To make that kind of exhaustion sound effortless—and believable—is a pretty good trick. Compare that with the lighter, uncomplicated fave o’ mine, “Rainstick,” which, incidentally, does sound like rain. Or the feeling of rainy days. The simple pure plucking of strings, the uncomplicated repetition, the low mournful vocals like the sound of thunderclouds. Violins sway to and fro, keeping company with the vocalist. And like rainy days, it makes you happy and sad all at once, a damp melancholy that just makes you aware of being in existence.

You’ll get along fine with this Fam’ly if Andrew Bird and mewithoutyou albums call your house home. Is it similar sounding? Sure, but don’t mistake that for lack of originality. Ah Holly Fam’ly doesn’t lack for direction. This is a group you may want to keep tabs on—I certainly plan to, Chee-tos in hand.


Reservoir will be out October 13, 2009, on Lucky Madison Records.

“All Unfolding” – [mp3]
“Young Veins” – [mp3]

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