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King Hannah cover substantial ground on Big Swimmer

"Big Swimmer"

Release date: 31 May 2024
King Hannah Big Swimmer cover
29 May 2024, 16:00 Written by John Amen

King Hannah’s full-length debut, 2022’s I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, was a well-curated set

Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle drew from their influences while frequently landing on compelling reconfigurations. With their new album, Big Swimmer, the duo more fully claim their own ground. Merrick eludes the grip of Hope Sandoval, Liz Harris, and Cat Power, among other singers, while Whittle steps away from the long shadows of Jimmy Page and Jack White, asserting his own sonic playbook.

That is, if I’m Not Sorry spotlighted the duo collaging their predecessors, Big Swimmer documents their budding individuation. On the title track, they integrate punk-inflected abrasiveness, austere textures, and hints of bluesy psychedelia, evoking the quest for aliveness, courage, persistence in the face of doubt or hardship (carpe diem with a dollop of stoicism). Merrick’s voice, complemented by an understated Sharon Van Etten, is breathy, mysterious. Whittle offers a rafter-shaking guitar solo.

“The Mattress” shows Merrick and Whittle mining tensions between spaciousness and busyness, gossamer notes and vocals contrasted with garage-y crescendos. Whittle is effective rhythmically and accentually. “Suddenly, Your Hand” features Merrick as she blends diaristic notes and poetic fragments, Whittle building from clean, almost jangly notes to distorted and wiry runs. These songs, and the fertile dynamics at play, unfold with an ease that indicates significant growth for the duo.

“New York, Let’s Do Nothing”, a tribute to the Big Apple, including a stoner-ish travelog that lauds NYC’s museums and coffee shops, puts Merrick’s spoken-word leanings on center stage. Whittle offers grungy rhythms, riffing in a way that would please Angus Young and Thurston Moore. “Milk Boy (I Love You)” is a disturbing vignette about a kid who is probably being emotionally and physically abused. Merrick touches on a cadence that recalls Florence Shaw and Kim Gordon but transcends both, leaping at the track’s conclusion into melodic lines undergirded by Whittle’s fuzzy guitar parts.

“Lily Pad” and “Davey Says”, meanwhile, underscore King Hannah’s ability to craft and deliver an XM hit. The former, like “The Mattress”, moves between the austere and incendiary, Merrick repeating “I think I’m going insane.” Though bursting with volatility, the song is melodically enrolling. Whittle’s guitar work is striking, as he oscillates between minimalistic rhythms and a jam-y interlude. The latter is a 3-minute anthem, the tune’s melody and slacker romanticism immediately and unshakably infectious.

On closer “John Prine on the Radio”, Merrick confesses that she “can’t concentrate on much these days”. There’s “chicken in the oven”, however, and she accesses a certain contentment, finding solace in domesticity, a reprieve from free-floating agitation. Merrick harmonizes with herself, offering some of her most distinct vocals, a mix that conjures the classic country canon (Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, the Carter Family).

With Big Swimmer, King Hannah seem to have arrived at a point where they’re better able to trust themselves and their muses. Stylistically, thematically, and energetically, they cover substantial ground. Also, while the set brims with a sense of unrest and dislocation, it also rouses an implicit exuberance: though we suffer profoundly, art is redemptive, life is inexplicably beautiful.

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