Last year Melbourne’s own Husky became the first Australian act to sign to the legendary Sub Pop label, former home to a dozen or more loud ‘n’ fast bands with more influence than can be clearly deciphered and current home to an ever-increasing crop of folksy, Americana-drenched bands who may share the love of checked shirts that their predecessors held so dear but certainly don’t feel the same way about feedback or getting flat-out fucked.
Despite their geographical separation Husky display many of the same traits as the current crop of American Sub Poppers – Poor Moon, Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes etc – a strong tendency towards classicism, a love of ‘60s California folk rock and a penchant for “keeping it (ethe)real”.
The songs here are largely set in a specific natural environment which forms both the backdrop and provides a third, key character in the interplay between vocalist Husky Gawenda’s voice and the people that make up the bulk of the focus of the lyrical content – prime among them his fractured muse “Josephine”.
Tracks like ‘History’s Door’ – a simultaneously delicate and maudlin military stomp with a leaping chorus and positively luscious string refrain replete with unsettling notions like “Your heart knows you’ll never win/Till you’re freed from him” – and the zigzagging piano run of the disconcerting ‘How Do You Feel’ (a tale of murder that considers “Maybe it’s a movie or a dream/Perhaps I’ll wake up screaming”) are where the band shine: traditional sounding alt-folk ballads that feel like a refreshing dip in warm, clear musical oceans.
There isn’t enough of this across the record though. The songs too often stare uncomfortably at their shoes wondering what to do next – take the lachrymose but generic ‘The Woods’ or overwrought Decemberists nod ‘Hundred Dollar Suit’ – both just about saved by Gawenda’s Paul Simon-treading vocal nuances but otherwise unremarkable.
There are a number of other tracks that could be as easily left as taken – the Shearwater-scraping acoustica of ‘Dark Sea’ and the jittery ‘Fake Moustache’, an adventurous sounding song that gets tied down in borrowed melodies and faux-afrobeat instrumentation – and it sometimes appears that we’re listening to yet another band infatuated by Radiohead, toying with an old treasure map that points at the sweet spots of the Byrds and Beach Boys but whose exact locations are muddied by the thumbprints of a thousand previous owners, as on the Yorke melody-driven ‘Forever So’ and the direct ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ lift of the chorus on ‘Don’t Tell your Mother’.
This is not all bad though. Despite it’s perilous length (a good, bold edit across the board would have buoyed this album considerably) there are little joys to crack open, among them opener ‘Tidal Waves’- a Lost In The Woods-style beauty, carefully crafted from patches of old folk and modern melody, and closer ‘Farewell (In 3 Parts)’ – a stunning and sparse Sun Kil Moon-skirting ode to fractured love that builds with a sliding electric guitar, carefully pressed piano keys, delicious acoustic strums and snaps of heartening percussion before carrying us through on a ragged Kozelek chord sequence, jolting us with a knuckle rap on the guitar’s body and allowing us the finest moment of the record: “Time can be so cruel but you’ll be my friend some day/There was a lot we didn’t say, wasn’t there Josephine?/There were oceans in our way/Oh what does that even mean”. It’s engaged, soulful stuff and it’s a shame that the record isn’t often clear and expressive enough to allow more moments like this the space to resonate.
While it’s sometimes a bland experience, the songwriting here, with a little self monitoring, could bring us something really special next time around. As it stands we’re left with a debut referential in the extreme but with an occasional knack for shining loveliness. It’s fair to say there’s plenty of mileage in the Sub Pop brand yet.