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.
Without further adieu, numbers 1-10 in the best albums of the year.
Album of the Year: The Collection – Ars Moriendi. (Review) This album epitomizes the type of music I look for: intricate, complex arrangements of acoustic-led, folk-inspired indie-pop tunes with deeply thoughtful lyrics about life, death, and religion. The fact that you can shout along to half of the tunes only makes this more impressive. This was a no-contest winner for album of the year.
2. Kye Alfred Hillig – Real Snow. (Review) Temporarily shedding the acoustic singer/songwriter mantle, Hillig struck gold with a set of electro anthems cut through with his well-developed indie-pop songwriting techniques and evocative, thought-provoking lyrics. “None of Them Know Me Now” is the jaaaaaaam.
3. St. Even – Self-titled. (Review) I love concrete poetry that relies on images to portray meaning instead of adjectives. St. Even knocks that type of work out of the ballpark here, pairing it with playful, unexpected, herky-jerky, innovative arrangements of horns, piano, and strings. “Home Is Where You Hang Your Head” is a stand-out among stand-outs.
4. Brittany Jean and Will Copps – Places. (Review) Giant washes of sound meet indie-rock emotion over acoustic instruments to create something that’s not exactly electronica, indie-rock, or singer/songwriter. It hit me in unexpected ways, and always from unexpected angles.
5. The Fox and the Bird – Darkest Hours. (Review) The folk-pop boom is largely over, meaning that we can get back to people doing folk-pop because it’s their thing, not because it’s a trend. The Fox and the Bird produced the best straight folk-pop this year, both lyrically and musically. Challenging lyrics and breezy, easy-to-love music is a great combo for folk-pop, and Darkest Hours has both.
6. Cancellieri – Closet Songs. (Review) Welcome to Mount Pleasant was a gorgeous album, but this collection of demos, b-sides, and covers was the Cancellieri release that stole the most of my listening time this year. Ryan Hutchens’ delicate voice is beautifully juxtaposed against a single acoustic guitar, putting his songwriting, song re-envisionments, and impeccable taste in covers on display. A perfect chill-out album.
7. Little Chief – Lion’s Den. (Review) Arkansas folk-pop outfit Little Chief took the path trod by The Head and the Heart in creating chamber-pop arrangements to fit on their pastoral, rolling songwriting ways. The subtlety and maturity in the songwriting is astonishing from such a young outfit. If you need an album to drive around to in fall or winter, here’s your disc.
8. Novi Split – If Not This, Then What / Keep Moving Disc 2 / Spare Songs / Split. (Reviews) My favorite hyper-personal, intimate songwriting project got a massive bump in exposure this year. David J took the recordings of a decade that were spread about the internet and finally compiled them in one place. I’ve heard almost all of them before, but the fact that they’re official and can be easily accessed caused me to listen through them again. They’re all still amazing examples of painfully poignant bedroom singer/songwriter work. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Novi Split.
9. M. Lockwood Porter – 27. (Review) Porter’s second full-length expanded his alt-country sound in dynamic ways while developing his lyrical bent. The results are memorable rock tracks (“I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me”) and memorable ballads (“Mountains”), a rare thing indeed.
10. Jacob Furr – Trails and Traces. (Review) The subject matter of Trails and Traces is even heavier than Ars Moriendi, but Furr takes a nimble, light approach to his alt-country. Instead of wallowing in despair, Furr’s heartbreaking lyrics are backed up with hopeful, searching melodies. I’d usually say “not for the faint of heart” on matters like these, but Furr has truly put together one that speaks hope for the hurting and hopeless. Search on, friends.
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.
I was knocked out by Kye Alfred Hillig‘s ability to convey emotions on last year’s eclectic Together Through It All: through pop-rock, indie-pop, singer/songwriter, and even electro-indie, Hillig showed he knew how to bowl the listener over. Hillig is back with Real Snow, and it’s an even better offering: his emotional power is fine-tuned even further, and he’s chosen a specific sound to investigate. Hillig has gone full electro-pop on Real Snow, and the focus makes it into an excellent album.
Opener “Cold Front” establishes the rules of the game. Good: synths, beats, live percussion, bass, cascading electric guitar riffs, soaring vocal melodies. Less Good: acoustic guitar, piano, ballads. Bad: things you can’t dance to. If you know Hillig’s previous work, “Cold Front” will be a little bit of a shock, but his signature emotive power, vocal tone, and engaging melodies are there. It’s just in a different genre this time. By the time you get to “None of Them Know Me Now,” you won’t even remember that Hillig’s last album was predominantly Americana. He sounds like he belongs in this genre, not as a toy or a lark, but as a genuine pop hitmaker.
I know that sounds weird from an artsy indie songwriter, but don’t worry–the word “slaughterhouse” appears in the chorus, and the narrator of the tune sounds positively solipsistic. Hillig is flexing other muscles, you might say–and when those muscles introduce the triumphant guitar solo in the breakdown section, you’ll be dancing right along without concern. It is truly wonderful. “None of Them Know Me Know” is basically what we wanted MGMT to mature into.
It’s not all neo-club-bangers in here: “Useless Keys,” “Like God” and “Bells of Doom” explore different elements of electro-pop. “Bells of Doom” pairs an insistent acoustic guitar strum with a twitchy, urgent low-key electro section reminiscent of The Postal Service. “Like God” ups the nervousness ante and moves straight into outright dread (complete with terrifying spoken-word section from a guest poet closing the piece). “Useless Keys” relies heavily on real electric bass guitar for its plodding yet bouncy vibe.
Hillig can’t get through a whole album without busting out a few ballads, and so “When You Were a Waitres” and “The Night Obscene” appear. “When You Were a Waitress” is a wrenching piano ballad depicting the remorse at the end of a one-night-stand/relationship that probably shouldn’t have happened, while “The Night Obscene” seems to depict quiet despair in an otherwise normal life via Americana-style acoustic guitar-heavy arrangement. Hillig delves this lyrical mine deeply in Real Snow; everyone seems sad about something. Even the funkiest track “Ugly We Were Born” opens up with, “Heavenly gates, Oh! Don’t you want me?/Don’t you think I’d make a great slave?” Whoa there.
So maybe the grating despair of some tracks makes interesting juxtaposition to the dance-oriented music; maybe the perky arrangements hide the heaviness somewhat. It probably depends on the listener. I know that I’m all about the sounds here; it’s some of the most interesting and enjoyable electro-pop I’ve heard all year. If you need to get down and you want something a little more cerebral than “Selfie,” Real Snow should be your jam.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.