Daniel G. Harmann has been recording, solo or with previous band The Trouble Starts, for the last 15 years. It is not surprising that Slowing Downspends time exploring and investigating the intricacies of the sound he’s created over that time span. His early days as a lushly-orchestrated indie rock songwriter meet his crunchy guitar side and mingle with the sparseness he cultivated all along the way. What results is a thought-provoking album of distinctive indie rock.
Harmann’s most distinctive feature is his voice: he has a sonorous tenor that swoops, swoons, quavers, and warbles elegantly. He is fond of rapid interval leaps and drops in his vocal lines, which gives his melodies an inherently dramatic quality. In his early work (The Books We Read Will Bury Us), the songs were built around these giant moments, but here Harmann integrates his vocal stylings into the arrangements much more. Opener “Carbondale” buries his voice in a shoegaze-like way under a barrage of percussion and synthetic sonic haze, but that’s an extreme case. “Hesitations” is as much about the martial stomp of the drums and synth as it is his voice; the melancholy of “Volition” is powered equally by the guitar performance and his pipes.
That trio of tunes holds down the rock end of the spectrum here; on the other end lie delicate tunes “Dues,” “Zocalo” and “Tectonic.” Harmann has always shown an affinity for the acoustic guitar and has often released guitar and voice songs (Westroy Sessions); here he’s polished those skills to a shine. But Harmann’s acoustic songs are not standard singer/songwriter fare. The unique vocal melodies he is fond of give the work surprising twists and turns. “Dues” is as pretty a song as Harmann has penned in his long career, challenging my personal favorite “Last Swim of the Year” for the crown.
The central piece of the album is “Endless,” which brings together his rock interests and his beauty-minded writing in one package. It starts off with a brittle, distorted slice of guitar work before dropping into mid-tempo minor-key rock. His voice soars over the guitar twice: once as lead, once as ethereal backup. The ghostly vocals usher the transition from the minor-key verses to the major-key “chorus,” where the gritty guitar returns with a bright, muscly, uplifting vibe. It strongly echoes early ’00s Deep Elm Records work, like the White Octave, Appleseed Cast, and the like. After the chorus, the guitar fluctuates again, sending the song out on a chunky, powerful riff and repeating square synth. It’s breathtaking, showcasing the nuance and thoughtfulness that can come from 15+ years in the game. It’s a bit noisier than his early work, but there’s a direct line between then and now in this tune.
If you’re into serious indie-rock, Slowing Down should be on your to-hear list. Harmann has spent years tweaking and refining his sound, creating a distinct sonic space for himself. Those interested in clear, strong songwriting voices will have much to celebrate in Slowing Down.
Daniel G. Harmann has been firmly on my radar since 2007, when The Books We Read Will Bury Us made its way into my life. His lush, romantic, slow-moving work helped me first write the phrase “Rainy Day Makeout Music.” Since then he’s gone in all sorts of directions: he’s picked up a noisy rock band (The Trouble Starts) and gone voice-and-acoustic-guitar solo on different projects. The excellent White Mountains benefits from all his various configurations: the whip-smart indie-rock writing incorporates both fury and romance.
You need look no farther than tracks two and three to see how this juxtaposition works out. “Pistols at Dawn” starts out with stark pseudo-grunge clean guitar tone before introducing organ and tempo-pushing drums. The track unfolds as a churning-yet-wiry track, a simmering heat that never boils over but threatens to at all times. Harmann balances the muscle and the melody with his dramatic vocal performance, walking the line between aggressive rock howls and aggrieved indie-pop vocal theatrics. It ends in a drum solo, because why not? It rocks. It’s like Silversun Pickups, but with a window that lets some light in.
“Anna” follows “Pistols,” and it couldn’t be more different. Composed of the same general elements (organ, drums, guitar, DGH’s vocals) with the addition of a Wurlitzer, the song is a mid-tempo tune that showcases the keys and Harmann’s emotive vocals. There’s no aggression here, whereas the last track had the threat of it everywhere. It’s beautiful in a way that hearkens back to his previous work.
This tension goes back and forth throughout the album. “Bastion” is a piano-led indie-pop tune with trembling vocals. The guitar-driven “It’s Fine, It’s Fine” is one of the fastest rock tunes. “New Concerns” encompasses both feelings at once: it’s one of the heaviest tracks here, with a biting guitar tone, brittle vocals, and ominous piano undertones. But there’s also a glorious, dramatic, Muse-esque piano run halfway through that evokes a different mood on top of the one that’s already there. It’s a complex tune with a lot of payoff. Closer “Elkland” meshes the two ideas even more, layering chiming guitar notes over a gritty rhythm guitar to play with the distance between aggression and mourning. It’s evocative, to say the least.
Daniel G. Harmann’s White Mountains offers up complex, satisfying compositions. Harmann’s distinctive voice adds character to the evocative tunes that play with the borders between rock and indie-pop, resulting in an album that doesn’t sound quite like anything else going on. Harmann has honed his craft to a fine point with this release, and it’s worth checking out for any fan of “indie rock,” broadly conceived. Pre-order it here, then start with “New Concerns.”
Even listeners who obsess over their favorite bands do not spend as much time with the tunes as the artist who created them does. This uncomplicated fact should be reason enough for artists to routinely change sounds and for listeners to accept those changes. Sadly, this is often not the case. “I’ve just got a connection to that one album, y’know?” For that reason, I try to give a wide berth to bands that want to change it up.
I say that because Daniel G. Harmann‘s Risk is a change of sound. It’s not a dramatic change in sound (i.e. Plans –> Narrow Stairs), but it is a fundamental shift in the purpose of the tunes. While Harmann still makes grand, sweeping, morose tunes, he’s making them this time with the express intent of rocking while doing it. Note the fact that he’s brought along a band, cleverly titled “the Trouble Starts.”
While Harmann was no stranger to distorted guitars, pre-Risk, they weren’t the central mood marker in most tunes. Here, they are: Harmann’s voice, which previously drove the proceedings, takes an equal seat with the guitars in many songs. This is not a bad thing, but for a guy who absolutely loves The Books We Read Will Bury Us, it’s disorienting to hear a distorted version of Books’ “Solidarity” appear on Risk. I could write a whole post on the differences between the two versions, but that wouldn’t tell you much about the album as a whole.
On the other hand, it’s comforting that he did include some old tracks (the entirety of Our Arms EP appears), as it eases the transition some. If he had just dropped a whole album of tunes like “Estrella” on us oldtimers with no warning, there would have been a lot of weeping.
That’s because “Estrella,” in the vernacular of rock’n’roll, absolutelykills it. I’m talking charging guitars, pounding drums, rushing cymbals, Daniel G. Harmann yelling unintelligibly in the roar and epic strings to top it all off. It sounds like Explosions in the Sky. It is absolutely fantastic, and totally unexpected. It is far and away the highlight of the album, as it’s the one that you’ll be pressing repeat for.
There are other moments on the album of similar but not greater caliber. The playful riff of “Auckland to Auckland” is underscored by a complicated tom pattern. “The Horse and the Sistine Chapel” is a straightforward rock song, albeit with Harmann’s decidedly unstraightforward vocal tone. “Lions” even starts out with a guitar riff as opposed to a big sheet of distortion. In short, Daniel G. Harmann really wants to rock out. So he does.
Is it good? Yes. It’s definitely good. Harmann’s aforementioned vocals and unique melodies keep the proceedings from turning into a Silversun Pickups album (although “Lions,” with its male/female vocals, tries really hard to ape their sound), and the band is incredibly tight behind him. They manage to keep Harmann’s more ambient tendencies in check, which is good for his new rock sound. Things never get monotonous, as they well could have, had he just slapped distortion over his old songwriting ideas.
I like Risk. It’s a well-composed album of rock tunes with occasional forays into mellow romanticism. As I skew toward the calmer side of music most of the time, I prefer the fewer moments of mopey emotionalism (” Knob Creek Neat”) to the squalling stomp of “Brass Tacks,” which is the majority sound. Be not swayed, though: Risk has definitive charms (again: “Estrella” destroys it) that I would be slighting if I passed over the album. If you’re a fan of art-powered, moody rock like Silversun Pickups, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and things of that ilk, you will find many joys in Risk.
Daniel G. Harmann and the Trouble Starts’ Risk drops Tuesday. Get it here.
Mood-encompassing indie-pop that will calm and soothe you with lush beauty.
I love indie-pop, in all varities. I love Sufjan’s jubilant theatrics, The Postal Service’s blippy electronic pop, Fountains of Wayne’s pristine guitar pop, the Mountain Goats’ delicate acoustic songs, and Novi Split’s fractured half-songs. I love all of it – but there’s a special place in my heart for a small sub-genre of indie-pop that I have lovingly labeled “Rainy Day Makeout Music.” Daniel G. Harmann may not know that he is one of the superstars in this specialized arena, but with The Books We Read Will Bury Us, he has vaulted himself into the upper echelon of this tiny group.
What constitutes “Rainy Day Makeout Music”? It’s surprisingly easy to pin down, although not a lot of people set out to make music like this. It’s basically muted, muffled, shuffling, dreary music – beautiful, full songs that seem full to bursting with parts but just don’t seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere. The members of Meryll are the experts at making moving music that hardly moves at all, but Daniel G. Harmann certainly is challenging them.
Harmann’s music is totally encompassing in the fact that it controls the mood of any room it is played in. The songs are inescapably beautiful – perched right on the brink where nostalgia becomes regret and sleepiness becomes disappointment, but never falling over into the downer side. It is comforting music – music that makes me want to get wrapped up in a blanket, watch the rain fall, and, well, leisurely make out with a girl.
The great thing about this music is that it doesn’t really matter which track is which – while each track has something unique to offer, it’s really the mood that is set from the first ten seconds onward that is the draw of this album. For what it’s worth, the track that I find most engaging is “Last Swim of the Year,” which rides on a moseying, muted drum beat and a non-invasive, circular acoustic guitar line. The guitar line is layered on top of repeatedly, but the swaying forward motion of the underlying acoustic track paired with the lazy, contented swagger of the kit drummer keeps the track from getting bogged down in the weight of its own layers. The vocals are fragile and perfect, floating above the music in a way that begs for a very cheesy analogy to something like waves or small birds. Just consider them amazing, ok?
The only part of this album that I don’t find amazing is the unfortunate “Solidarity.” It’s not a terrible song – no, the unfortunate quality is that the warbly vocal performance is not nearly up to the stunner that is “Last Swim of the Year.” Did I mention that “Solidarity” directly follows “Last Swim…”? Total buzzkill.
But “She Hears a Frequency” picks up where “Last Swim of the Year” left off by introducing a swooning cello, and all is righted. And honestly, if one slice of one song on a half-hour long album is the only thing I can find wrong, you’re doing some pretty stellar work.
Daniel G. Harmann’s work on The Books We Read Will Bury Us will encompass your mood for a half-hour. Prepare to be soothed, calmed and wowed. And seeing as this is an iTunes-only release that’s merely 6 songs long, the album is cheap. You do not want to miss out on this beautiful piece of (inexpensive) art. This album definitely will be on my best of 2007 list.
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.