Friday, January 16, 2009

Best of 2008: #7. Pygmy Lush - Mount Hope

It is interesting to note the musical careers of the members of any successful, genre-defining band after they split up, especially for any former fans hoping for another taste of brilliance. In this case, we have Pg. 99, an extremely influential hardcore/screamo band from Virginia that lasted from 1998 to 2003, who played passionate and dissonant punk for the disillusioned and disaffected. Upon breaking up, its members went on to a number of different and increasingly diverse projects: from the progressive and elaborate hardcore of City of Caterpillar, to the eclectic punk dynamics of Malady, to the desolate instrumentalism of Ghastly City Sleep, each new project embarked upon added another layer of musical depth that was rarely if ever hinted at in the works of Pg. 99. Featuring three ex-members of Pg. 99, Pygmy Lush came in shortly after the break-up of Malady (of which singer Chris Taylor also performed in), born out of a desire to experiment with more lo-fi, organic compositions. And so the members of Pygmy Lush went about writing and recording a collection of songs that experimented with the limits of acoustic music as well as the misanthropic punk of their previous bands.

On their first album, Bitter River, Pygmy Lush took the harsh, unrelenting screamo of the group's pedigree (given the production quality, I Wrote Haikus About Cannibalism... is a good comparison here) and imbued it with flashes of lo-fi folk, creating an overall package that was as disparate as it was jarring to the senses. Which isn't to say that it was bad - it had some surprisingly strong individual tracks - just that some combinations are probably best left entirely separate from one another (I remain just as confident that mayonnaise and chocolate would not have lit the world aflame with quite the same level of passion as Reese's later, more heralded candy creation).

However, on Mount Hope an entirely different approach is taken, with the harsh screamo bits dropped entirely in favour of folk, and the record is much better for it. No longer will the listener be greeted with a startlingly aggressive transition following a dream-like passage of ambient musical minimalism; instead, Pygmy Lush develops a clear focus, emphasizing the band's expansive blend of melancholic folk.

Yet despite the traditional sameness of folk music, this is also a surprisingly varied album, likely due to the number of collaborators. While one of the strength's of Mount Hope is its consistent mood, Pygmy Lush still finds ways to experiment within the realm of their chosen genre. Offbeat instruments like the harmonica and accordion are given occasions to shine. Rhythm is kept in a number of ways, from the wood block chopping of "God Condition" to the flat foreboding echoes of "Dead Don't Pass", to the tin pitter-pattering of "Concrete Mountain". The depressive country-western feel that the band manages throughout the first-half is offset by the occasional blip of indie accessibility, such as in the title track or the eerie "Butches Dream", with the rest of the album being a more minimal, rustic affair, akin to what was seen on Pygmy Lush's first album (but with superior production).

But for all the successes of Mount Hope, the eight-minute closing track, "Tumor", is easily the highlight of this album. It sums up the group at their best: warm, emotional, and vivid. It consists of a simple acoustic guitar lick and its accompanying chimes repeated, the atmospheric hum in the background making the song feel like a waking dream, haunting in its austerity. The overwhelming sparsity of it all feels like an examination of the warmth in desolation, with the compassion of the vocals feeling distant, as if to have faded away in the face of overwhelming apathy. All this makes for a mesmerizing finish to what is possibly the best folk album in years. Mount Hope is an emotional and deeply personal recording that is both simple and beautiful, with a strong sense of craftsmanship guiding it along its way.

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