Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Premiere: Kye Alfred Hillig’s Great Falls Memorial Interchange

February 11, 2016

kyehillig_greatfalls_cover

Kye Alfred Hillig is a roving wanderer when it comes to musical styles. 2013’s Together Through It All showed off the diversity of his musical interests, spanning emotive balladry, indie rock force, and electronic pop; since then, his last three albums have borne out specific interests in longform statements. The electro-pop of Real Snow showed off his ability to make a club jam (“None of Them Know Me Now” should be on every party play list, seriously), while The Buddhist impressed me with just a nylon-string acoustic guitar and Hillig’s poignant lyrics. Now Great Falls Memorial Interchange flexes his alt-country muscles (with indie-rock touches). Great Falls is a record that I felt immediately at home with, as Hillig’s confident songwriting, sharp lyrics, and indelible voice create an experience both comfortable and exciting.

Hillig’s calling this his “punk rock record,” which comes out perhaps more in his self-assured attitude toward the songs than in his actual songwriting. The most punk-rock moves here are the abrupt, mid-phrase ending of opener “Always Leaving Early Deb Lake Tahoe” and several wordy, complicated song titles–the approach to the tunes, however, does seem a little more confrontational, a little more brash, and a little more pointed. The music is actually more in line with alt-country than punk-rock fury, but hey–country can resist, and “The Church Street Saint Leads the Marching Band for Truth” has some prominent snare drive. Punk rock is what you make it.

The zinging pedal steel of “Louder Blonde” and “Jennifer Love Is Some Ghetto Behind Your Eyes” situates Hillig’s latest instantiation firmly within alt-country, while tracks like “To Be Good” and “Big Sleeping Nowhere” point back to his older sounds. Overall the songs are noisier and more-electric guitar-based than his previous two albums, but they never get so noisy as to obscure Hillig’s vocals or make the lyrics incomprehensible. Tunes here clang and clatter at their loudest, but they never lose a sweetness in the melodic content. The balancing act that Hillig manages to get all his disparate sounds and ideas to work together with a centering concept of alt-country is a pretty impressive feat. Hillig always sounds fully in control of what’s going on in this record, whether it’s the songwriting, the arrangements or the lyrics.

As impressive as songwriting is, the lyrics are the best indicator of Hillig’s confidence: he’s always been an incisive writer (see the title track of Together Through It All for early proof), but here he seems to have come into his own with a consistently high level of lyricism. Whether he’s questioning the foundations of morality (“To Be Good,” “Almighty God Flaccid River of Sorrow”), writing John Darnielle-level complex story songs (“Always Leaving Early Deb Lake Tahoe,” “Whitney Houston”) or writing a painfully honest (anti-?)love song (“In Tandem”), every lyric seems to stick in my mind and take up residence.

The story-songs in particular are memorable, as the narrators of Hillig’s tunes here accuse more than accommodate: third people are charged with not believing in romantic love or God after a breakup (“Throwing Up”), offering cheap sympathy that’s really more about the speaker (“Almighty God Flaccid River of Sorrow”), and doing various complicated and seemingly terrible things (“Yes Grinning Face of Death”). This is a rare album that can work in both directions: come for the music, stay for the lyrics; come for the lyrics, stay for the music.

And yet the punk-rock confidence in his songwriting and the refining of his lyrics are achievements that can be somewhat missed on first listen, because Hillig’s voice is so arresting here. Hillig’s vocal timbre is idiosyncratic in a pleasant way–he delivers his high tenor in a way that somehow manages to sound yelpy and round at the same time, coming off ultimately as deeply earnest. This allows him to create songs of great conviction and songs that float tenderly along with ease. His performances here are often mesmerizing in their melodic quality, as his vocal tone and timbre draws me in and won’t let me go. “Ancient Burial Ground” shows off his ability to sound calm and desperate in equally interesting measures–it’s just genuinely fun to listen to Kye Alfred Hillig sing on this record. That’s a rare thing.

Great Falls Memorial Interchange is an album that succeeds on all levels: the songwriting, the lyrics, the vocal performances. Everything is just top-notch. Even though these songs deal with difficult emotions, nowhere do these songs become brittle or unrelatable–the clarity of the lyrics, the ease of the melodies and Hillig’s inviting voice make them fit like a new coat. I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, but they felt like old friends as soon as I had. Highly recommended.

Great Falls comes out February 26 with a show at Seattle’s Conor Byrne. You can pre-order the record here.–Stephen Carradini

Kye Alfred Hillig: Intense vignettes, nylon strings

September 26, 2014

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Kye Alfred Hillig introduced himself to me with the powerful and incredibly diverse Together Through It All in 2013: it powered through a half-dozen discrete genres with ease. This year’s Real Snow honed in on his electro-pop side, becoming an album-of-the-year contender in the process. Then he bought a nylon string guitar, became obsessed with it, wrote a whole album’s worth of voice-and-guitar material in a week and a half, recorded it, and released it two months later as The Buddhist. Must be tough to choose set lists now.

Together Through It All was a series of almost uncomfortably intense vignettes, carefully constructed for maximum emotional impact. The Buddhist is the polar opposite of that songwriting style. Several of these songs have too many words in particular lines to fit the scheme; instead of meticulously rewriting them, Hillig just sings the extra words faster and crams them in. The guitar lines, lyrics, and vocal delivery are paramount here: the vocal melodies, not so much. There are several memorable vocal lines (“Come Play with Me” and “I’m Alive Because of Nuclear Bombs” in particular) but that’s not the point of this record. If you want to hum, go for Real Snow. Start with “None of Them Know Me Now.”

But if you want to hear some heavy, heady lyrics, you need to plant yourself on a couch and listen carefully to The Buddhist. The titular character appears to sing many of the songs in first person, identified by particular recurring characters (one named Barbara, another named Sarah). The album can be reverse-engineered into a whole life history of a person, or seen as vignettes from a bunch of different characters. Either way, the poem-like attention to detail in the lyrics of each of these songs is astonishing; there are all manner of little touches to the lyrics (descriptions of things, stray names of people, place names, etc.) that give this an intimate quality. Instead of being intense by being grandiose epics, these songs are powerful because of their lack of pretense. Hillig is just sitting there, picking and singing about a tough life in highly literate fashion. It’s disarming.

Each song could be a highlight in its own way, but “I’m Alive Because of Nuclear Bombs” is the most single-like in that it has an obvious chorus, upbeat tempo, and a sort of jaunty mood (sort of because look at that title). “Riverside Park: Devil Mask & Wings” is one of the most emotionally devastating tunes, although “Come Play with Me” is a close second. “Buried a Cop” is a gorgeous tune melodically that splits the difference between the two previous ideas. But I could go on and on.

I believe that you find the core of a songwriter when you take away all of the surroundings. (Nothing against the other sounds or members of the band; I’m a bassist, after all.) Pulling away Hillig’s arrangements reveals something even more impressive than I expected. Instead of becoming an acoustic version of a indie-pop songwriter, he transforms and applies his skills to fit the situation. The Buddhist is a remarkable album, one that has initial charms and grows on you. It requires you to really listen, but you’ll be highly rewarded if you do. Fans of The Mountain Goats, Red House Painters, Damien Jurado, and Josh Ritter will all swoon for this.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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