Hallelujah the Hills
Discrete Pageantry Records
Hallelujah the Hills are the greatest band you’ve never heard of. The Boston-based sextet have been around for nearly 15 years now, churning out brilliant music for the masses. I first came across them away back in 2008, when Pitchfork had a link to a free download of their Prepare to Qualify ep. I was hooked immediately, especially the raucous closing track, a live version of their song ‘(You Better Hope You) Die Before Me’.
I’m You is their seventh album, and the band feels this is their best yet, though they immediately modestly note that a band’s seventh album is never the best, though, as they note, Tom Waits’ SwordishTrombones was regarded as his best album, until all the better ones that followed came along. And then there’s Guided By Voices, to whom The Hills often get compared, whose seventh album was Bee Thousand. HtH songs begin with Walsh, who writes them, usually as a sort of shell, usually on the guitar, and then creating some lyrics. Then he brings these to the band, who then flesh them out. The results can be unpredictable; Walsh originally envisioned the burner ‘Running Hot With Fate’ as more of a ‘Werewolves of London’-type thing. It did not turn out that way. (You can read our feature with them here).
One of HtH’s greatest strengths is that they create incredibly catchy music in a sort of cinematic manner. Aside from the basics of guitar/drums/bass (provided by Walsh, Nicholas Ward, Ryan Connelly, and Joseph Marrett, respectively), they also both Ward and Bryan Rutledge provide keyboards, and Rutledge also plays the trumpet, Ward also plays the piano, and David Michael Curry brings the John Cale-esque viola to the mix. The Hills is a shambolic band, in all of the best senses, when they get going, they sound like it’s all going to fall apart, like the Pogues used to. But, it never falls apart, they reign in the chaos, they pull it all back together.
I’m You as a whole explores notions of self-identity and the boundary between performer and listener, and breaking it down. It begins with the slow-burning ‘My Name Sounds Sinister,’ with Walsh singing ‘Hello, I am the person singing this song/And if you think that might be you/Well, I guess you might not be wrong.’ And with that, we are immediately collapsed into a relationship with the band, Walsh becomes us and we become Walsh. The song burns into a crescendo with Walsh repeating the chorus ‘Every time you say my name/It sounds sinister.’ As the song builds up towards the end, Ward joins in with a backing vocal ‘I am the person singing this song’ and then the music builds with Walsh sounding increasingly unhinged with his two-line chorus and Ward underneath him. Rutledge’s trumpet holds the building crescendo together, and then, Connelly ends it, and then the feedback and trumpet fade out.
‘Folk Music is Insane’ is the second track. This one is clearly influenced by Walsh’s book, published last year, which is ostensibly about the period Van Morrison spent in Boston in 1968, hiding out from some NYC mobsters, and laying the groundwork for his landmark Astral Weeks album (recorded back in that mob-infested NYC). In reality, it is a meditation on the underground scene of Boston in that seminal year, and the oddness of the New England city. ‘Folk Music is Insane’ sees Walsh jumpcut between the late 60s and today:
Slam cut to present day
there’s weirdness in the woods
and I can’t stop looking at my phone
now we’re cheering on assassins
adjusting our glasses
pretending that a verse would set us free
or a bad joke
or a single helix
it’s all the same to a ghost with a guitar
folk music is insane
folk music is insane
I mean, yeah, folk music IS insane. But, that’s beside the point.
This is an album of feel-good, singalong music, even when the song isn’t a happy one. Take, for example, the afore-mentioned ‘Running Hot with Fate.’ The lyrics see Walsh telling stories about a whole host of people travelling around, in rehab, in dodgy relationships, but the point being his repeated line ‘Well, I’m fine/But I’m not ok.’ But the song starts with some random voices and some studio chatter, and then the song gets going, a chugging drum and bass jam, with some electric piano and horns. As the song progresses, we get some classic Hills: shouted choruses, cacophonous music. This might also be the most straight-ahead rock’n’roll song on the album.
The countrified ‘Born to Blow It,’ co-written with Walsh’s wife, Marissa Nadler, sees him detail all his failures over a sad, repetitive guitar, with some feedback for good measure over the bass. It’s not so much a woe-is-me song, as he notes that he is his ‘own greatest destroyer.’ But the last thirty seconds sees the song explode over some trashed guitar, before he screams ‘I guess I am just my own great destroyer’ and then the horn takes us into silence.
As Morrison laid out the groundwork for Astral Weeks in Boston in 1968, he assembled a trio with two local musicians as he played the city’s coffee houses, sorting himself out, Tom Kielbania played bass and John Payne played flute. When he went to NYC to cut the album, Kielbania was ditched, though Payne talked himself onto the album. On ‘It Still Floors Me,’ a dreamy meditation of self, Payne shows up to lend his flute:
When you solve the mystery you become one yourself
As you sink into everyone else
You ask, “is this how it feels to be you?”
The album is out tomorrow and will be on all your favourite platforms, and don’t forget to check out our feature with Hallelujah the Hills. And if you’re in Boston, they’re playing their record launch at Great Scott in Allston on 19 December. Check them out.