For a genre obsessed with freedom and the open road, country music can be pretty rigid. There's very little wiggle room among its adherents and players, and beyond the generational trend of deploying watered down hip hop beats beneath country anthems, there’s typically very little opportunity for cross-pollination.
So it's refreshing as hell when a band playing in the constraints of country music carves out new ground. Sure, some puritans will hold their nose. But Howl Mouth, the new album by the trio Tall Horse whose resumes are stacked with indie-rock accolades, are making some of the most interesting and rewarding countryinfluenced music in the state.
Portland's a small enough city to be able to gather influences influences. It's impossible to imagine this band existing without the work of Wes Hartley, whose projects the Traveling Trees, Dead End Armory, and Splendora Colt, have set the bar for Maine-based punk-bred country music. But this group might have cohered better over time than any of those were able to.
Howl Mouth is one of the few local records whose production is good enough to highlight. Laid down at Penumbra Recordings in South Portland, Jayson Whitmore's spacious, shimmering recording allows the band to fully stretch its limbs, adding an element to these songs as vital as any of its spare, smart instrumentation.
On opener "We Were Friends When We Were Kids," the band let melodies drone until they sound like the very aches they describe. On the lurching, waltzy ballad "Sew Me Up," guitars steep and simmer on the low end, letting Devin Ivy's nifty drumwork flicker in the foreground. Throughout, Dominic Grosso's basslines lurch and throb like distant scattering thunderclouds, resonating in shapes of varying depth and darkness.
On "Fucked Up," the album's midpoint and arguable peak, bandleader Nick Poulin sounds more in his element than any Tall Horse song we've heard before, embodying the ecstatically mournful chorus with peerless vocal work. If there's one material difference between this album and 2014's Glue, it's Poulin’s natural evolution as a frontman. His adenoidal drawl will have listeners recalling singers that have touched them in moments past — be they Hartley, Jim James, or Wayne Coyne — but Whitmore treats Poulin's voice as carefully as a delicate instrument, harnessing something that might otherwise register as an affectation of the genre and turning it into a powerful emotional asset.
Refreshingly for an alt-country band, Tall Horse lets their songs veer out of lane a good amount. Howl Mouth would sound lovely on a desert road, but there's unmistakable elements of urbane indie weirdness, langourous post-rock flourish, and far more than their genre's typical comfort level with noise. There's a soft, understated instrumental bridge halfway through "Skin Deep" that takes several listens to properly assert its majesty, its three diffracted soundscapes meeting and exploding into a final congregation. Even the radio-friendly pop song "Juggernaut," which could be mistaken for a fan-favorite Shins song, descends into signature Horse weirdness to its completion. And “Howl Mouth” is as finely executed a closer as these things get, Poulin diving fully into the stakes of his narrative.
In an era of populist Americana and reckless individualism, country music should be experiencing a heyday. But its tired fascinations and market-researched melodies have instead left it one of the most tired forms of musical expression. Galloping in and out of the genre, Tall Horse have made a record its fans should rightly appreciate. It's a fine, richly rewarding soundtrack for the long, open road in front of you, and the one unfolding in your head too.
Tall Horse Howl Mouth CD-release party | with Ossalot + Purse + $300 | July 8 | Sat 8:30pm | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | www.space538.org
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