This is a soundtrack to a distant, half-remembered Californian summer; a great album, showcasing a band on top of their game and without pretention but lots of heart.
‘Americana’ is one of those genre descriptions that is narrow enough to be definable but wide enough to be inclusive. Americana music is built on the shared and varied musical traditions of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rock and roll, and gospel. Americana music is ‘of’ those styles, but not necessarily ‘in’ them in the purest sense. It might be built on American music styles but it can come from anywhere, geographically.
Modern Hinterland, a 4-piece band based in London, prove this with their third album, ‘Diving Bell‘ released on 29th January through the Fandango label. The band is led by Chris Hornsby (Vocals, Guitars, Keys) along with Simon Shippey (Guitars, Vocals, Keys), Tim Thackray (Bass, Vocals) and Colin Marshall (Drums, Percussion).
When bands that aren’t from the United States write and play Americana music, it always feels like there is an additional sense of wanting and searching in the sound and the lyrics; a yearning to be somewhere else, experienced vicariously through those traditional, merged musical styles.
‘Diving Bell‘ covers the gamut of Americana sounds (with a dash of indie) from the Pacific Coast road trip joyousness of single ‘California (August 16th 1998)‘ to the Hotel California album pastiche of ‘Blue Water‘, which is one of the best album closers you will hear this year by the way. There is plenty of variety in this album in the musical stylings and you can definitely imagine this as a soundtrack to a distant, half-remembered Californian summer.
‘Diving Bell‘ evokes loss, missed opportunities, memories and relationships that have come and gone, through the eyes of a travelling troubadour perhaps. Despite this, the music still manages to convey a feeling of optimism, like a reassurance that despite it all, things are going to be OK, maybe with the benefit of time and lived experience. The brilliant melodies throughout are probably why and the band do a fine turn in top notch middle eights.
Songwriting duties on ‘Diving Bell‘ were shared by the band and the album was recorded in just three days at Embassy Studios in Hampshire and co-produced by Graham Dominy (Robert Plant, Biffy Clyro). The album was mixed by the band and mastered by Andy ‘Hippy’ Baldwin (Wretch 32/ The Who / Blur/ Oasis / Interpol) at Metropolis. That sound, of a band captured in the moment, doing their thing, with just enough production to be just enough, is very apparent on the album; founder of Modern Hinterland, Chris Hornsby said:
‘Once we started playing together it was clear there was something special going on, enough creative tension to keep it interesting and ideas coming in thick and fast’.
Album opener and single ‘California (August 16th 1998)‘ is about the loss of the optimism of the late 90s but still manages to sound positive. “Things were simple – No real worries. Getting driven – No real hurry. Everything could be – Around the corner. Nothing was yet – Out of order”. It is hard not to imagine yourself in a Ford Mustang, with the top down, heading down Highway 1 with the Pacific by your side, as you listen to this.
‘If I Knew You Well’ comes next sounding a bit like the Counting Crows with organs high in the mix and a big sounding chorus. Hornsby sings: “You’re a spinning sun, I’m a diving bell. We suit each other pretty well….”
‘No Escape’ ups the pace, frenetic drums kicking on – “I’m made of wires I’m electrified. I don’t know what’s keeping me alive” – a sense of purposefulness in the sound is in contrast to the lyrics, which are about just trying to get by.
‘Final Warning’ is the first tune on the album which sounds more brooding and contemplative. It feels more reflective in sound (maybe not word) than most of the other tunes on the album. The final wailing guitar sounds seem to be signalling said warning.
Respite comes though in the form of a gorgeous instrumental number – ‘Good Luck‘ – which starts slowly, building very gently before it peaks and wanes again. It’s a beautiful tune and if ‘Final Warning’ was the storm, then this is most certainly the calm the morning after, where the world gets to reset – really lovely.
‘Hard Luck’ has a Springsteen-esque quality to it, with stories of blue collar workers toughing it out day-to-day and dreaming of escaping to something better. It’s followed by ‘Everybody Better Be Nice‘, sounding a little like a Belle and Sebastian song, and the sound of someone feeling a little fed up with life.
‘Did You Find What You Were Looking For?’ is a lovely guitar-driven number with some delicious vocals and harmonies. It’s got a real sense of purpose and the kind of song you might hear over the closing credits of a road movie as you leave the theatre singing along with a smile on your face. This song is a bellwether for the album and if this floats your boat then you’re going to like the rest.
Next track – ‘Where Do You Go?’ – verges close to, but doesn’t go full-on, psyche in style. It’s probably the least Americana sounding song on the album. ‘California Redux’ is a short instrumental number which sounds like it might be closing out the album. Actually what it’s saying is – ‘hey, you think that’s it? Well, wait ’till you hear this!’.
Boy, what a song to close with. ‘Blue Water’ sounds like it might have been recorded during the sessions for ‘Hotel California‘ or Dennis Wilson’s ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’, with gorgeous pedal steel by Michael Phillips and choir vocals by Georgia Nicholson. It’s a brave decision to have something as stunning as this as the last track on your album. It’s grand, sweeping and epic and that doesn’t wane with repeated listens.
“You are sitting in your favourite seat. By the window where two roads meet. Watching people as they pass too fast. Wasting life as if everything lasts” sings Hornsby, reminiscing about loss and imploring us to take our chances when we have them. ‘Blue Water‘ is one of the best songs you will hear this year, Americana or other genre and a great way to close out a great album, showcasing a band on top of their game and without pretention.