Graded on a Curve: Houndstooth,
No News from Home

Houndstooth’s membership hails from numerous points on the North American map, this geographical breadth mirroring musical range that helped to strengthen their 2013 debut. Formed in Portland, OR as a five piece in 2010, in the interim they’ve shed a member, but their follow-up record maintains the diversity of inspiration; indie elements blend with Americana, Classic-rock and psychedelic flourishes as Katie Bernstein’s lead vocals enhance the tunes’ worthiness. No News from Home is out this week on LP/CD/digital via No Quarter.

Houndstooth’s influences are broad but complementary, their music striving for cohesion from inside the melodic rock realm. The sound they make is refreshing and not a bit unusual; at times, in indie terms, Houndstooth can even be described as classicist. To begin, they rely heavily upon strength of material, with each of the band’s full-lengths springing from the songwriting fount of Bernstein and lead guitarist John Gnorski (both originally from Austin).

Graeme Gibson (who moved to Oregon from Canada) plays the drums and produces, and newest edition Cari Palazzolo (also from Austin) rounds out the lineup on bass. Since the group’s inception a pair of contributors have departed the scenario (and on good terms; Courtney Sheedy and Mike Yun, both Detroit to Portland transplants, are listed on Houndstooth’s website as “past pals”), but these changes in personnel haven’t discernibly effected the togetherness of their attack.

All the ingredients were in place for first LP Ride Out the Dark; its stronger moments include the Crazy Horse-tinged “Canary Island,” the crisp Americana of “Wheels on Fire,” the fibrous indie pop of “Strangers,” and the Bernstein showcase “New Illusion.” Additionally, “Francis” could’ve been an entry on a ‘90s Too Pure label sampler, sly Krautrock influence being one of Houndstooth’s aces in the hole, while “Don’t I Know You” tickles the ear like Mazzy Star circa She Hangs Brightly.

This last comparison is recurring, though not overplayed and occasionally quite shrewd. For evidence, there’s No News from Home’s title track and lead single; musically the composition is tidy, upbeat psych-hued pop-rock, but it possesses an appealingly achy quality courtesy of Bernstein, which is where the similarity to Mazzy comes in. And yet subtle; while her tone might be reminiscent of Hope Sandoval it comes with a busker’s edge instead of chanteuse-styled flair.

In no way should this infer Bernstein doesn’t excel at the frontwoman position; to the contrary, her conversational thrust in No News from Home’s uptempo opener “Bliss Boat” reveals a little Deborah Harry sass, the cut combining passages of instrumental raucousness with a pulsating bass line brandishing just a hint of motorik, the clamor smartly downshifting to accent Bernstein’s gutsy verses, though the cut’s backend finds the ensemble soaring to a satisfying conclusion.

Following “Bliss Boat” is a slower slab of rurally-imbued indie that’s nicely augmented with touches of dream pop; in “Amelia,” Bernstein’s voice suggests Harry if she grew up on a ranch rather than on the pavement of NJ/NY, and the ease of the vocalist’s delivery and the calm adeptness of the playing underscore the confidence in their overall execution.

Confidence stems from practice, a simple prerequisite for performing bands and one Houndstooth hasn’t neglected. It’s a reality highlighted by “No News from Home” and “Green Light,” a solid number mingling strains of Classic-rock (a tendency particular overt in Gnorski’s brawny post-Neil solo bursts) with a contemplative singer-songwriter approach suiting Bernstein voice very well.

Houndstooth’s sound is grown up (though not self-consciously adult), and their practice-derived discipline importantly extends to a lack of unnecessary sonic ornamentation. Inaptly depicted as stripped down, neither is No News from Home gussied up, the avoidance of over-adornment working in their favor throughout the LP.

It’s especially effective on straightforward strummer “Wasted Hours,” the tune reinforcing the variety in Houndstooth’s cache through Gnorski’s lead vocal turn and a deft rise in rootsy, country-rock ambiance. Furthermore, the platter’s individual selections avoid lingering too long, with all eleven chalking up manageable durations totaling a tried-and-true 40 minutes. Truthfully, a few could’ve stretched out a smidge longer; so it is with the Velvety chug of “Witching Hour.”

That song’s mixed gender duet falls into the grand tradition of John Doe/Exene Cervenka in X and Rick Rizzo/Janet Beveridge Bean as part of Eleventh Dream Day, and does so without mimicking either. Shades of organ add to “Witching Hour”’s increasingly energetic sum, the track culminating with ripples of psych-inclined string burn.

Bernstein’s singing again nods toward Mazzy’s direction in “Borderlands,” though with a brisker pace recalling mid-‘60s guitar pop, Gnorski’s playing bringing Bobby Fuller and The Searchers to my mind as Gibson and Palazzolo’s unfussy rhythmic tandem elevates the whole. But the icing is Bernstein’s vocals as she astutely illuminates the thread of melancholy found in the lyrics; in its plainspoken verve her voice is pretty but not precious, a circumstance befitting the disc’s earthier angles.

“Borderlands” segues sans hitch into “Yellow Stone,” a fine indie pop specimen, its maturity enlivened by the continued vibrancy of the group interplay. This atmosphere of jangling melodiousness is retained in the opening seconds of “Double Vision,” but without delay textures of psychedelia arise courtesy of fuzzy amp residue, and near the end, a cascading keyboard.

By now it should be obvious that Houndstooth draw upon an assortment of eras in shaping their collective thing, though they can be fairly synopsized as an extension of the ‘90s indie shebang. And in a maneuver mildly comparable to Ride Out the Dark’s finale “You Won’t See Me,” No News from Home’s penultimate track is a pop nugget of undisguised ‘60s flavor.

Bluntly, the guitar and interweaving voices kicking off the exquisite climes of “Spirit” are only one transistor radio away from a late-summer canoodling session hosted on a blanket as a beachside fire blazes close by, worries temporarily evaporating into the temperate, starry night. Naturally, waves of distortion do emerge to intermittently challenge the aura of cares-be-gone.

In an interesting twist, Gnorski retakes the vocal lead on the leisurely paced Americana-informed closer “They’re Racing Tonight,” Bernstein joining him on the first chorus and sticking around thereafter, the rhythm instruments keeping efficient time and the guitars strumming all the way to a finish. Capping the record is a swell of strings nodding to Gibson’s seat in the production chair.

The band wisely doesn’t attempt a haymaker every time out, and album number two defeats the bugaboos of the sophomore slump; entries initially seeming merely okay gain traction as the spins add up, so it’s aptly pegged as a grower. No News from Home is primed for investigation by folks with a predilection for guitar-based femme-voiced old-school indie. But in transcending this niche is where Houndstooth ultimately stand out.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Pumple Stiltskin

    I can’t concentrate on this article with that huge-ass record sticking out the side of it. Please remove that thing and do a wider page for goodness sake.

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