Hank Dogs: Bareback
by George Graham
(Hannibal 1413 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 03/03/99)
One does not have to look far to find styles from the 1960s being revived or used as inspiration by performers who were scarely born when during that decade. From roots and country-rock to psychedelic to classically-influenced art rock to soul and R&B, one can find music being made now that echoes styles from 30 years ago. This week we have an interesting and quirky album by a group that draws on one of the lesser-heard styles to come out of that era, English folk rock. They call themselves Hank Dogs, and their debut CD is entitled Bareback.
While Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Pentangle were the three principal groups that originated the English folk rock sound, all three drew on traditional music at one time or another. A somewhat different facet of the genre was presented by acoustic singer-songwriters who had a distinctly English sound like John Martyn, the late Nick Drake, and Ralph McTell. It is this more laid-back, folky sound that Hank Dogs draw on, along with hints of the psychedelic era, from the extended length of the tunes that almost break into jams, an occasional mystic quality to the lyrics and a sort of hippie looseness to their sound. The result is a distinctive album that sounds as if it fell out of a time-warp.
Hank Dogs are a trio, described by their record company, with tongue in cheek, as a dysfunctional family. The only use their first names with the singer and guitarist named Piano joined by her ex-husband named Andy, who is said to have been a part of the Sex Pistols for a short time after the death of Sid Vicious. Rounding out group is singer-drummer Lily, who is the daughter of Andy but not of Piano.
The group had been performing in a South London venue called the Easycome Acoustic Club, where apparently a new English folk scene is developing. Hank Dogs' link with Brit-folk was further underscored when they attracted the attention of producer and Hannibal Records head Joe Boyd, who had produced seminal albums by Fairport, Nick Drake, The Pentangle, John Martyn and other key figures in the Sixties scene. Boyd served as executive producer for this album which was co-produced by the trio and Sam Harley.
The music of Hank Dogs combines attractive and very folky strumming acoustic guitars, often playing in 3/4 time, with the airy vocals of Piano and Lily, and lyrics that are often dark, ruminating, and occasionally bordering on the unsettling. This dichotomy between the music's mood and the lyrics is a recurring motif on Bareback. Providing an auditory feeling of deja vu is the distinctly loose sound of the production. Sometimes the harmonies wander a tad off perfection, the rhythm section is not always absolutely tight, there's a piano, the instrument, that is, that is slightly out of tune, and the mix and engineering are a somewhat quirky all in a manner that brings back memories of albums from the Sixties where technical perfection was much rarer. And like some the better albums of old, that lack of perfection was overcome by the interesting and appealing music, and indeed the musical personalities of the performers. Hank Dogs certainly do bring a distinctive character to their music.
Though the bulk of the album comes from the main trio, there are other musical guests from a cellist to a trumpet player. Acoustic guitars remain at the center of the sound, with some nice fingerpicking to be heard.
This generous 15-track CD begins with Lucky Break a piece which sums up the Hank Dogs sound, with its bouncy and folky waltz beat, and the airy vocals with a hint of looseness. The lyrics, which essentially say to "seize the day" are some of the more upbeat on the album. <<>>
On the other hand, one of the darker pieces of writing is the following track 18 Dogs perhaps inspired by the survivalists who hole themselves up in a compound somewhere. <<>>
Also rather unconventional is the title piece, Bareback, which is given a Spanish sound with its trumpet and hints of flamenco but whose lyrics are an unusual tale ostensibly about prostitution from the standpoint of the courtesan. <<>>
A song which could have something to do with the complicated familial relationships within this group is Daddy's Arms. The vocal is apparently done by the younger member of the group, Lily the daughter and stepdaughter. <<>>
Thought Messages features yet another set of unusual and cryptic lyrics possibly about ambition or lack thereof. The piece again spotlights the group's appealing acoustic guitar lines. <<>>
I suppose that given the dark and unconventional lyrical direction of this album, a ghost story would seem a natural. Re-Union is just that, clothed in another attractive folk waltz. <<>>
There are a two tracks with Andy doing the lead vocal. One is Sun Explodes, a kind of love song with images of Halloween woven into it. <<>>
Also quite cryptic is The Sea which may or may not have something to do with death, with its allusions to the body coming home to the sea. <<>>
While occasionally the vocal harmonies on this album can have a looser quality, the opening of Way of the Soul features some beautiful acapella singing with the interesting harmonies reminiscent of duo The Story. <<>> Thereafter it becomes a kind of introspective folk influenced song, with a more positive mood than most on this album. <<>>
The CD ends with one its most appealing songs, an undocumented bonus track that we'll call Take Back My Own Heart, with Andy again doing the lead vocals in this upbeat piece with an almost tropical quality. <<>>
Bareback the debut album by the British folk trio Hank Dogs is an enjoyable and quite intriguing record. This non-nuclear family band combines an attractive and folky musical setting with some dark lyrics that are often ambiguous and sometimes vexing. Though the group draws on some of the English folk performers of the past like Nick Drake and John Martyn, one can almost hear a kind of alternative rock aura to the music. Likewise, the production and sound, with the little imperfections and slightly idiosyncratic mix gives this a distinctly late 60s quality. Also reminiscent of that period is the way several of the tracks keep going on perhaps longer than they should, coming close to breaking into jams that might have gone over well at the Fillmore.
The album's sonics do have a bit of -- let's say quaintness. While Bareback is quite listenable on a good sound system, sometimes there's too much reverb or the wrong kind of reverb, sometimes the vocals approach the point of being buried, making the lyrics sometimes difficult to discern. And there are occasional faults like sibilance in the vocals. But again, it conjures up images of LPs from the late 1960s, and for those who remember those days, it has an endearing quality. Still I would have preferred a bit less compression in the mastering and a somewhat warmer sound on the acoustic guitars.
Bareback, by Hanks Dogs marks an interesting revival of the English folk scene with an memorable album that is nevertheless very hard to categorize.
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