For those of you who haven’t noticed already, TLOBF is really quite keen on Canada’s The Acorn. When we first posted about them back in February, they had no record deal in the UK, and not that many people outside of Canada had heard of them. Yet, it was clear at that point that there was something special here. After all, it’s not every band who get Simon Raymonde of Bella Union declaring their record ‘one of my fave fave fave records…ever’ on a comments page. And this was months before Bella Union finally signed the band for the release of Glory Hope Mountain. Since then we have covered their every move- done a fantastic 20 Questions, and in turn they have been long listed for Canada’s Polaris Prize, played a successful US tour, played the End of the Road SXSW showcase, put on a workshop with Calexico and The Apostle of Hustle at the Winnepeg folk festival and prepared for their immanent UK invasion. So what is it that has got us, and many others, so hot and bothered about the band?
If I said The Acorn were the latest hot property out of Canada, blending gang vocals, classically trained instrumentalists producing music that is on equal parts bombastic and gently soothing, a raw talent putting their own spin on folk rock and ‘Canadiana’, the chances are you are going to be thinking they could be just another shallow copy of Arcade Fire. However, Glory Hope Mountain couldn’t be further away from the latters ‘Neon Bible’. While The Arcade Fire decided to go all Springsteen, and take on the world with songs of a more global perspective, a pre-apocalyptic vision in neon, The Acorn frontman Rolf Klausener did the opposite. Instead Klausener set about writing and recording a biographical album of a woman named Gloria Esperanza Montoya, a Canadian immigrant who escaped a brutal childhood in Honduras before meeting a Swiss diplomat whom she eventually married. Klausener recorded hours of interviews with Montoya, hearing tales of her childhood, and her journey to Canada. During this time he heard stories of great suffering, and courage, of belief and redemption, all of which fed into the songs on Glory Hope Mountain, itself a loose translation of Gloria’s name.
One of the most harrowing stories that came out of the interviews was that of Napoleon, her elder brother. Aged 14 he was asked by her father to go and watch over the workers on the sugar plantation. Napoleon was afraid of the dark, and also found it hard to walk due to having suffered from childhood polio. Enraged by his sons refusal to go, Napoleon and Gloria’s father whipped his sons naked torso with his belt. The belt wrapped round the boys body, and when it was whipped away it tore a chunk of the his skin out. Enraged, Gloria, then aged 12, ran to the shed, grabbed a machete and ran at the father, threatening to kill him if he touched Napoleon again. That night, she stole all the money from her fathers safe and took it to the city to a Catholic boarding school. The next day her father came asking where the money was, and after a conversation with her washed his hands of her and abandoned her there. She was there for two years until the money ran out, after which she set up home on her own. This and other stories form the foundation of Glory Hope Mountain, a deeply personal record, which infuses some of the traditions of the lead characters history (particularly the Honduran Garifuna, which Klausener learnt about as part of his research, and the early folk recordings of Harry Smith). But this is not just a bunch of college kids appropriating another persons culture- the already deeply personal nature of the record is magnified by the realisation that Gloria Esperanza Montoya is in fact Klausener’s mother, and this is his own family history. However, this impressive and somewhat weighty backstory should not overshadow the music here. Despite the fact that it is dedicated to and hugely influenced by his mothers story, Klausener’s skill is making the specifics universal- like a true storyteller, or bards throughout history, he uses his source material to weave tales of love, loss, redemption, and strength in the face of adversity, without resorting to heavy handed narrative structure.
The album opens in a stripped down manner, with ‘Hold Your Breath’, just Klausener and a delicate piano line, his hushed tones cracking in a half whispered half spoken lyric that calls to mind Sparklehorse at their finest, recounting Gloria’s troubled birth. It isn’t long before the tumbling rhythms come in and the song builds to an epic, celebratory climax. This then runs into ‘Flood Pt 1′, where the influence of the Honduran Garifuna and Klausener’s own childhood exposure to West African rhythmic motifs while living in Mali comes to the fore; hand claps, fluid guitar lines and marimba’s chiming alongside rolling drum rhythms and gang vocals provided by Howie Tsui, Shaun Weadick, Keiko Devaux, Jeffey Malecki and Jeff DeButte, who make up the rest of The Acorn’s accomplished membership. ‘Even While You’re Sleeping’ slows the pace back down, mournfully picking guitars and scraping percussion as Klausener’s melancholy vocals take centre stage again. The Honduran influences raise their head for the beautiful ‘Crooked Legs’, a tale of midnight escape, guided by fireflies and using the stars as a map, the driving rhythms lending the song a sense of urgency as the subject of the song goes as ‘far as these crooked legs take me’. Although we live in an era where more and more artists are experimenting with what was formerly regarded as ‘world music’, The Acorn manage to incorporate the sounds into their own rather than just copying it wholesale, a fact which means at no stage do the influences seem forced.
In ‘Antenna’, Klausener and friends provide yet another example of why ‘North American Indie’ is wiping the floor with the UK scene, crafting a monster of a pop song of the type you wish Ryan Adams and Wilco would write more often, built around a swelling organ part and a twisting guitar line and throwing in a nice atonal guitar solo for good measure. Coming and going in 3 minutes flat, it deserves to be the soundtrack to your summer ( supposing we have one this year). On the occasions where the rhythm section is allowed to rest, The Acorn prove themselves more than capable of holding their own in a crowded field. ‘Oh Napoleon’, with its plucking banjo’s and fingerpicked guitars calls to mind the stripped down beauty of Sufjan Steven’s ‘Seven Swans’, or the Melancountry of the Red House Painters or Mojave 3. The haunting swells of Wooden Star’s Michael Feuerstack’s pedal steel compliment Klausener’s heartfelt lyrics perfectly, while the harmonies on ‘Plateau Rumble’ and ‘Flood Part 2′ are sure to be a hit with fans of new Bella Union label mates Fleet Foxes. Never ones to lapse into predictably, album closer ‘Lullaby (Mountain)’ sees Ohbijou’s Casey Mecija replace Klausener on lead vocals, accompanied by gently plucked strings and an understated cello part, gently lulling the album to it’s conclusion, and returning to the idea of birth, and the life cycle beginning again.
Two years in the making, Glory Hope Mountain should see The Acorn finally get the recognition we here at TLOBF think they richly deserve. The amassed talents in the band, plus the numerous guest stars combine to make this a thoroughly engaging album, and one that improves with every listen.
Glory Hope Mountain is available now digitally from Bella Union with a physical release on October 20th.
The Acorn September tour dates, sponsored by TLOBF:
6th Birmingham – Yardbird
7th Brighton – The Hope
8th London – Luminaire with Akron/Family
9th Nottingham – Bodega with Akron/Family
10th Manchester – Night & Day
11th Bristol Fleece with Akron/Family
12th End of the Road Festival (Main Stage)