The open road, hitting the highway, busting out of this town. The proud American tradition of penning paeans to getting – and staying – on the move is worn to the point where the original dirt road is peeking through from beneath the tarmac. Every now and again, these timeworn templates are twisted into compelling new shapes. This is a trick Houndstooth manage with impressive ease on Ride Out The Dark, their debut album.
Lyrically, the first word of the album title indicates what looms large over these tracks: the word ‘road’ crops up, cars are driven, lifts are offered and accepted, a vague sense of restlessness, of something better waiting somewhere else bubbles beneath the surface. Which is fitting: two of the Portland, Oregon fivepiece originate from the southern states, other two derive from Detroit, and the remaining member is from Canada. As such, it’s fair to predict the band are fairly familiar with the concept of moving on. Yet these ten tracks steer clear of the kind of clichéd highway romanticisms perfected by Bruce Springsteen.
Houndstooth keep their feet planted too firmly on the ground for the themes of escape to escalate into potentially overwrought metaphors for some existential breakthrough. Musically, too, we’re on familiar terrain. In my digital musical library, Houndstooth wound up parked between Hound Dog Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf. In a sense, this is appropriate: the band’s loose, raw and unpolished approach, offset by pop-savvy grasp on melody (check out the infectious ‘Baltimore’), could be traced back to beer-splattered, blues-blasting juke joints, at least if we acknowledge this as the starting point for the evolution of American rock music, certain significant segments of which are referenced here.
The superb standout ‘Canary Island’, full of ragged, jagged guitar lines egging each other on, suggest the band hold a collective PhD in jam-friendly Californian country-rock of late-60′s vintage, as exemplified by Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. The sparse acceleration of cuts such as the ominous ‘Francis’ bring to mind an updated take on the bar-band-orientated, hard-choogling later incarnations of The Velvet Underground. At the more melancholy end, occupied by the hypnotic opener ‘Thunder Runner’ or the fuzz-fuelled, haunting ‘New Illusion’, Houndstooth bring to mind the woefully underrated Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter, fellow firm believers in marrying duelling guitars to compelling songwriting, due not least to Katie Bernstein’s tranquil yet expressive vocals.
Ride Out The Dark‘s not quite perfect. There’s something frustratingly restrained about the album that belies the band’s explosive live reputation: you can almost taste how tracks hover on the verge of evolving into a colossal workout, only to have the plug pulled prematurely around the three-minute mark. The songs also lose their sharpest bite towards the end. Even so, a hugely promising start.