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(Spin Art 108 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/5/2002)
It's been recently noted that for the first time in decades, there are no British acts at the top of the pop music sales charts in this country -- but it's not for lack of trying. The British have certainly given us music ranging from innovative, seminal and fascinating to really dumb. The British penchant for eccentricity has no doubt been a factor in both extremes.
In the current commercial music climate, one can be reasonably assured that the group whose album we are considering this week is in no danger of hitting the top of those currently Anglophobic charts, but it's a recording that more or less embodies a number of typically English qualities, from quirkiness to worthy art. It's the new second release by an acoustic quasi-folk group called Hank Dogs, entitled Half Smile.
Hanks Dogs are an interesting group -- they are essentially a family band, though what has been described in their publicity as a dysfunctional family. On their new CD, they list four members, though one of them is not old enough to play in the band yet, so she is listed as "love and inspiration." The members are assiduous about not revealing their surnames. Andy, who is reputed to have briefly been a member of the Sex Pistols after the death of Sid Vicious, is one of the two guitarists and songwriters. A woman named Piano is the main lead vocalist and also plays the guitar, accordion and percussion. Piano is married to Andy. The other playing member is Lily, who is the daughter of Andy by a previous marriage. Lily sings and plays drums and other incidental instruments. Dixie, the one who is just there in the group photos, but does not play, is the daughter of Andy and Piano.
Three years ago, in 1999, they released their delightfully distinctive debut CD called Bareback. The group had caught the attention of Joe Boyd, who back in the 1960s was one of the major producers for the English Folk scene, providing production for bands like Fairport Convention and the Pentangle. Hank Dogs has some in common with those groups but more resemblance to English folk singer-songwriters like Nick Drake and John Martyn, with their mainly acoustic guitars and frequently introspective songs. One could also hear bits of Sixties psychedelia in Hank Dogs' sound, with a kind of hippie flower-child sensibility in both their music and lyrics, and some disarming looseness in their sound. Bareback was a charming, if quirky recording that caught the attention of a fair number of music critics who enthused about the group.
Now, after three years, and the dissolution of their previous record label, Hank Dogs are out with Half Smile which captures the best elements of their debut CD, but boasts better musicianship, tighter vocal harmonies, and a greatly improved sonic approach without losing their musical charm or what could still be described as wide-eyed musical innocence -- a quality that used to be pervasive in the Woodstock days, but which has largely disappeared in favor of slick production or carefully scripted sloppiness. As on their last album, one gets a sense of deja vu in listening to Hank Dogs on Half Smile, if you can remember artists like Donovan and Melanie, and imagine a little very early Joni Mitchell thrown in.
As on their last album the Hank Dogs play most of the instrumentation themselves. Some additional players are brought in for specific tracks, but the sound remains acoustic throughout, with fingerpicked guitars and vocal harmonies being the main sonic motifs, and echoes of Sixties folk not far from the surface. Despite their somewhat tighter sound on this CD, Hank Dogs definitely sound like a group who create music intuitively, rather than following the standard musical conventions, with quirky sometimes irregular chord change sequences, unconventional harmonies and the like. But they manage to make it all sound quite appealing.
Leading off is one of those somewhat musically quirky but attractive songs, Some New, with its unconventional song structure and meter. Like most of Hank Dogs' lyrics, the song's words are poetically oblique, though they apparently revolve around an attempt to remake oneself. <<>>
One of the more intriguing tracks is Red of Rice with its roundabout celebration of love, placed into another charming folk setting. <<>>
The title track Half Smile is striking in its ethereal sound and distinctive vocal harmonies, in a song about a love broken with hopes of repair. <<>>
With some interesting instrumentation added to Hank Dogs' regular line-up is the song Let Me Alone on which Lily and/or Piano plays the accordion and guest Dobro player Adam Kirk makes an appearance. <<>>
The group gets seemingly autobiographical on the song Whole Ways, which makes lyrical references to their last album in the folky arrangement. <<>>
Little Door is another fascinating piece combining sad lyrics which are essentially an elegy for a loved-one, with the attractive acoustic setting, complete with a cello. <<>>
The one song with Andy doing the lead vocals is Hollywood. Though he is not quite the singer as either of the women in Hank Dogs, the song is one of the best pieces of writing on the album. <<>>
About as close as the CD comes to rock is the bass and drums heard on the song Belief, which otherwise does not have a lot offer beyond the other songs. <<>>
The album ends with Rise, another of its best sets of lyrics, again in a dreamy, contemplative musical mood. <<>>
Three years ago, the British group Hank Dogs' debut release was an interesting, appealing, if perhaps a bit musically rustic album that had a lot of quirky charm. It sounded as if it had come from the mid-psychedelic-age, with its combination of folkiness and vaguely hippie-style sensibility. Their new CD Half Smile continues the group's musical direction, including their distinctly intuitive approach to composing, but they have progressed in their level of musicianship, and especially the quality of their vocals. The result is a charming, and yet quite intriguing album that has both echoes of the past, and a sound that in this day and age comes across as fresh.
Our grade for audio quality is an "A." A great improvement over their last CD, which suffered from too much reverberation, Half Smile represents a nice balance between an ethereal approach and sonic clarity. The instrumentation is well-recorded, the mix reasonably subtle, and there is a fairly decent dynamic range.
With so much commercial pop music being utterly contrived, it's nice to hear music as both unpretentious and musically interesting as Hank Dogs.
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