Carl Hauck has spent his last few releases searching for an identity. He was right at the cusp of one with Counter Intelligence, and his subsequent release Windjammer finally pushed him over the top. Carl Hauck’s lush, calm, finger-picked folk rides on gently thoughtful lyrics and understated yet rich vocal melodies to create an expansive experience inside an intimate mood. Hold up while I unpack all that mumbo jumbo.
Opening track “Martial Riesling” is the best song I’ve heard yet from Hauck, building on the strengths of his “To Coast” track that he contributed to On Joyful Wings’ latest comp. He starts the song off with a gentle guitar melody, which he quickly follows up with calm but rapid lyrics. Hauck’s not in a hurry, but he’s got a lot to say; that idiom follows through the album. In previous albums, his rapid delivery made understanding difficult. That doesn’t happen here. He’s letting listeners in to his thoughts much more, not shrouding them in cryptic words or speedy delivery.
His sound takes a turn for the expansive when he brings horns in for accent toward the end of the song. They aren’t particularly brassy or blaring; they, like the rest of the album’s parts, gently make their case before fading off. It alerts the listener to keep ears out for the stuff that’s going to be happening on the album. The same was true with previous releases, but the sounds didn’t fit in his songs as cohesively. Now the pieces gel perfectly, as gentle orchestration becomes a staple of the album’s sound.
The circumstances in which Hauck wrote the album also help the mood. Windjammer is the name of the street Hauck grew up on; it’s the same street he currently lives on, where he wrote the album. The whole album has a quiet awe about it, and features repetition of vocal and guitar melodies heavily. The repetition serves as a model of the feelings running through his experience (“whoa, I’ve lived here before”), as well as a showcase of his excellent melodic abilities.
In addition to having wonderful songs throughout, this album is a cohesive experience. It is best listened to in order, without distraction from the liner notes, lyric transcription or anything else. From tip to tail, it evokes a consistent feeling that feeling washes over the listener. It put me in a nostalgic state, especially by the time “Rooster” appeared at track 7. It’s a rare album that sustains a single consistent mood without getting monotonous, so Windjammer is definitely worth praising on that front.
Carl Hauck’s latest release builds on his strengths and drops out old weaknesses, which is about all you can ask for in a developing artist. The songs are emotive and powerful without being forceful, and beautiful without being cloying. Windjammer is one of the best acoustic releases of the year, as it will continue to reveal treasures as one listens repeatedly.
Carl Hauck is a folksy singer who sounds like Andrew Bird if Andrew Bird knew how to have emotions. All of Bird’s work suffers from a disaffected whimsy; it seems that Bird takes bemusement from everything he’s singing and writing about, but does not actually engage with it. Thankfully, Carl Hauck takes the best parts of Bird’s amalgam, adds some of his own, and slathers emotion on it to create Counter Intelligence.
That’s not to say that this is a Damien Rice-esque wailer of an album (not that Damien Rice is bad, but it’s a fair bet that there will be wailing in a Rice album). Hauck’s voice and songwriting are both very pristine, distinct and precise. The lyrics that Hauck produces are all understandable due to his easy tone and clear pronunciation. This is great, because his lyrics are solid. Whether storytelling (“The Rebel”), reminiscing (“Schmaltz”), or speak-singing semi-stories (“Zhuangwho”), you can clearly discern what Hauck has to say.
What’s great is that even though his lyrics are solid (the anti-war “The Rebel” is probably the best anti-war diatribe I’ve heard this year), he doesn’t have to hang his hat on them. His music is just as clever, witty and talented as his tongue. He primarily plays the acoustic guitar, and it’s from that instrument and its melodies that much of the emotiveness of these tunes is drawn. But the acoustic guitar doesn’t bear the whole burden: piano (“The Rebel”) and dreamy electric guitar (“Herrick, You Devil”) make occasional appearances. The extra instruments work perfectly in the context of his folk songs; they fill in gaps instead of taking over songs.
“Herrick, You Devil” is especially enhanced by its extra instrumentation; the eerie feel that Hauck and a female back-up vocalist create is mimicked by the dreamy, cascading guitar. It creates an overall feel of impending dread that only ratchets up higher when they kick in heavy reverb on a piano and the vocals; it turns Hauck and his foil into ghostly apparitions, drawing the song into the transcendent. “Herrick, You Devil” is a highlight track that you probably won’t hum; the mood will just stick with you and the reverb will take up residence in your head.
There are other highlights as well: the oft-mentioned “The Rebel” is a ten minute epic that swoops and leaps through various styles in its story, but it all holds together in a memorable way; “…And Their Hair Looks Like Flocks” invokes the meandering guitar lines of Elijah Wyman. “They Come in Flocks”, which is the companion (at least in title) to the previously mentioned piece feels vaguely like a Nick Drake piece in mood.
Carl Hauck’s folk songs do have nods to many other artists, but the completed product is distinctly Carl Hauck. The album feels tight and cohesive, as there is no letdown between tracks. Each of the songs unfold their own treasures, and because each is a little different, the album travels at a consistent pace. The album is ultimately held together by his clear, distinct vocals, as it’s a real treat to hear them. I would recommend Counter Intelligence to anyone wanting to hear some precise, emotive folk.