Album review: Cory Hanson – ‘Pale Horse Rider’: a psych-country triumph from Wand frontman


The Breakdown

You might expect Pale Horse Rider to be a really good record; it's actually a great one. It's a record about LA written with all the perception and acuity of native. It takes the country-psych template and when it plays within it, it plays with grace and precision and blur; and when it shifts out beyond, it does with the dynamics of British exploratory rock. All points covered, no filler; perhaps its time to crown Cory the new Wolf King of LA. Buy.
DRAG CITY 9.0

LOS ANGELES’ Wand have been charting quite a course in psych rock over the course of five albums, infused with all the good things: Left Banke piano melodicism, West Coast brightness and sunshine, trilling guitar work, a real gamut of sonic evocation, not afraid to play with sunshine pop, Americana, powerpop, stoner, even a little shoegaze.

In fact, they’re really bloody underrated; check “Blue Cloud”, from 2017’s Plum, or “Walkie Talkie”, from 2019’s Laughing Matter. They’re right at home at Drag City, a label that loves great sounds.

But singer-guitarist Cory Hanson also steps out on his own, as he did for 2016’s Unborn Capitalist From Limbo; eight tracks, half an hour of darker, atmospheric tunesmithery, more fatalistic and string-laden, dipping towards that nocturnal perfume of Mazzy Star; suggestions of that dusty heartbreak of Nancy & Lee; baroque beauty.

He’s stepping out again this very week with Pale Horse Rider, leavin ‘ LA for a high desert promontory, the better to surveil the lives and the city he calls home; to gain perspective and bring new songwriting focus. Those big, big skies can bring visions.

Pale Horse Rider was recorded out there, at Cactopia – yep, a cacti utopia; a house surrounded by 6ft tall sculptural, psychotropic succulents. He set up studio, lived on coffee, chilli and Miller beer.

It’s reported that the sessions for Pale Horse Rider had a one-take looseness, first run-throughs laid straight to tape with immediacy and feeling. Cory spliced cosmic Americana, psych, the films playing inside his skull, fashioned a gorgeous record.

Drag City say “it’s a record as much about Los Angeles as it can be with its back to the town and the sun in its eyes,” and they’ve summed it up with all the years of deep musical understanding they’ve gained; that desert-fried psych haze, Cory’s sweet and plaintive vocals gradually subsumed by the big skies of some eerily excellent acid guitars, intent on guiding you deeper.

Cory Hanson, photographed by Asal Shahindoust

The opening track, “Paper Fog”, was a single drop, and a very strong one at that; a little clicking drum track, seemingly nodding at Roxy Music’s “Dance Away”, quickly subsumed by a slide and vocal beauty, cosmic Americana to the max, all the shimmer and bliss of blue skies bottled with a little peyote down the alley; gliding, eyes wide shut, through an otherly landscape that lets you know you’re pretty small in the scheme of things; glorying in that perspective.

“I’ve been driving through the darkness … through the smoke and fire on the ground,” Cory sings, deep inside his own head, alone with his thoughts and the California landscape, where all the best epiphanies happen. It has all the best qualities of country-psych: emotion, atmosphere, harmony, tripping you deeper into your heart and your head.

We’ve got the video for “Angeles” embedded below for you, a mix of puppetry and animation visually reifying a laidback but dark paean to the City of Angels and a mantrap of a woman, psychoanalyst turned nemesis, co-dependent metaphors, the one inextricably bound up with the other.

It has lush harmonies, mystery, seasonal fires, gasmask bongs; Cory appears Muppet-like, besuited in yellow out in the hills above the city, looking down at it all. “Gotta look the beast right in the eye / Until you see yourself,” he hushes, animated hippos and giraffes nuzzling kinda cutely in the video; kinda macabrely, too. There’s a whole metaphorical layering to investigate here which takes a hugely pretty tune to other levels. There’s a nightmarishness at the heart of this particular LA dream. That lush, whispered and plaintive diminuendo, the name whispered out to the universe.

The title track, “Pale Horse Rider”, is a graceful essay for piano and strings, Cory recorded right close up: “Pale horse rider, won’t you come / To the place that you have found me / no one lives there anymore.” A lyric shot through with absence is framed with gentle piano chords, warm floods of slide guitar, aims and hits a Gilded Palace Of Sin level of sad evocation. “Sooner or later, the devil will come” we’re reminded as the songs deepens, a haunting symphony.

“Necklace” is but a fragment, a singing tone, all high drone atmosphere and flickering imagery at sundown cresting the edge of eerie dissonance, that springs us into “Bird of Paradise”, a psych-country arpeggio in which Cory relates how he dreamed “a bird with wings of fire”. Once more with feeling, his voice cracking as he recounts a maybe better place in the realms of sleep. He wraps himself tight in a throw of guitar textures, the better to steel himself against the arriving day, and a shimmering riff leads us to sun up.

“Limited Hangout” is warmly acoustic, intimate, introspective; you can hear the rattle of the snares as the drums shuffle. Partway through, the FX rack which has briefly shown its hand near the beginning roars forward, lifts a fragile tête-à-tête of a song with shoegaze honey and microtonal deliciousness. Wordless backing harmonies bring out other lamenting and baroque shapes. There’s a revelatory sadness at its heart. By contrast, “Vegas Knights” is acid country that could almost be McCartney circa Revolver, so bright eyed is its melody; Cory takes it into strings and delicate vocals, makes of it timeless cosmic American music, and its over far too soon.

“Surface to Air” is a slight return to “Necklace”, made of the same interstitial cinematic sound effects; it’s merely the opening titles for the “Another Story From the Center of the Earth”, such a gradual unfolding of languid country-rock, a proper odyssey; with absolutely no pejorative connotation, perhaps Cory’s “Hotel California”. It’s just another story, in which a lover’s skin “looks just like jewellery” in the middle of the night. It proceeds with the same nuanced attention to detail you find in Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “God Is In The House”: that sense of being almost at prayer, devotional, in the weft of the music. It advances at an observant pace, smoulders, flames, pedal steels swooping, guitars distorting, falling again with majesty to leave just Cory and the drummer, the former finding a Thom Yorke exclamatory beauty, singing right from his chest. And then he rips open that guitar in psych shredding, feedback singing and howling. You’re lifted high, dropped back down into the unassuming arms of the underlying piano and softly ticking drums; safe again as you hear the cones of Cory’s amp fuzz and rattle.

Let’s just play that one more time.

“Pigs” leads us to the out door, a properly autumnal psych-folk tune full of space and gentle sonic dynamics that swells into forward gear. There’s a little of Talk Talk’s approach to notes and the space between them herein, for my money, and at various other points through the record. Radiohead in their prime too, that appreciation of when to let the song flow out, when to keep it dammed back. Guitars crash deftly, harmonies rise; baroque strings double the vocal harmonies to close.

I came into Pale Horse Rider expecting to enjoy a really good record; I came out the other side having heard and written about a great one. It’s a record about LA written with all the perception and acuity of a Californian native; it’s also a record about the fringes, of the city, of the desert, of living today. It takes an established country-psych template and when it plays within it, it plays with grace and precision and blur; and when it shifts out beyond, it begins to play, as noted above, with the dynamics of legendary British exploratory rock. Which I didn’t see coming.

Above all that, it really works beautifully as an album, fully cohesive, all points covered, no minor tracks, no filler; perhaps its time to break out the ermine and sceptres, crown Cory the new Wolf King of LA. Buy.

Cory Hanson’s Pale Horse Rider will be released digitally by Drag City on April 16th and on cassette, CD and vinyl by Drag City on May 21st; you can pre-order your copy here. Really do.

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