2008 was a great year for folk. Bon Iver, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Sun Kil Moon all released great albums that, to some extent, received a good deal of critical attention. Grouper also generated a modest buzz for her rather lovely album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (which I wrote up earlier this year in this blog). One of my favourites, however, went completely under the radar of most publications and music fans, when it matched the quality of even its most hyped musical cousins. Pygmy Lush's background might go some way in explaining this - started by ex-members of DIY hardcore legends Pg. 99, their first record Bitter River was the sound of a band who were still finding their feet, trying to do too many things at once. Featuring forays into folk, Tom Waits-esque songwriting, experimental noise and even vicious and chaotic hardcore, while most of the material on there was at very least solid, the record came across as incoherent, more like a sampler of the various directions the band could have gone in than a cohesive album. Mount Hope sees them fulfilling the potential shown in Bitter River by taking a decisive step into the more mellow side of their sound and releasing an all-out folk album.
The breathy opening lines of the album give away the record's preoccupations: "The asphalt is leaning on me like a mountain/The pressure is building and I'm exhausted/I know you know there is nowhere to go." This weary, melancholic and sometimes even despairing tone surfaces in the lyrics to many of the songs on Mount Hope, resulting in an album which carries its heart on its sleeve and is emotionally very honest, something that gives the record a lot of depth and replay value. Despite this, Mount Hope isn't necessarily a depressing album persay - musically it is very laid back and subtle. Take the slow strumming, harmonica and xylophones of 'Frozen Man' which is lyrically pretty bleak but musically feels like such a relaxing listen. The album has its fair share of excellent and hummable tunes too - take the resigned melancholy of 'Hard to Swallow' or the album opener 'Asphalt'. The album mostly hinges itself around strummed or picked acoustic guitars as one would expect, but it features varied enough instrumentation to not feel too bare. The reinterpretation of Bitter River's 'Red Room Blues' is a real highlight on the album, the band having turned the previous two-minute incarnation into an absolutely gorgeous eight-minute bliss-fest that slowly dissolves into a shoegazing haze towards the end. There are a couple of rockabilly-style shuffles, such as 'Mount Hope' and 'Butch's Dream' thrown into the mix that contribute to the album's flow quite effectively. And, of course, the album ends on a high note with my personal favourite 'Tumor' - an amazing seven-minute number that takes its time, gently working towards its lush reverb-laden climax while its poignant lyrics slowly but surely destroy you from the inside (kind of like the nature of the song's namesake, then...)
With Mount Hope, Pygmy Lush have made a great record that proves that they're not just a bunch of screamo musicians dabbling in folk, but one of the genre's finest practitioners around today in their own right. It's a simple record with simple charms, but spend a little time with it and its personal depth and emotional honesty will, surely enough, win its way into your heart.
you never listen when i'm talking. you're always waiting to hear yourself. well, how am i doing? "how do you feel?" to be honest with you, simply ill. simply ill. simply ill. simply ill. simply ill. i had a tumor. it never healed. it just stayed there. until it killed. until it killed. until it killed. until it killed. until it killed.
-Pygmy Lush; 'Tumor'
Pygmy Lush - Mount Hope