Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review: Haunting Oboe Music's 12 EPs

haunting oboesThey already had Austin indie rock's most complicated live set-up going into 2008 (2 drum kits, 2 keyboards, trumpet, 2 guitars, 3 vocalists... no oboe ironically enough), but Haunting Oboe Music decided to raise the stakes on the recorded music side of things last year. Borrowing an idea from Brooklyn folk-rockers Bishop Allen, the Haunting Oboes decided to record and release a new EP every month of '08. But where Bishop Allen was a guitar-strumming duo that churned out middle-of-the-road folksy pop songs, Haunting Oboe Music was a sprawling six-headed monster with tendencies that pulled in directions as varied as electro, folk, screamo, instrumental post-rock, prog, and indie pop-rock à la Spoon. Some might've called the sextet ambitious or insane. Probably, the answer lay somewhere in between. A year later, they have 12 EPs and 50 songs that didn't exist in 2007. You have to be awe-struck by the ambition and dedication it takes to pull something like that off. Below is my attempt to review the 12 EPs in a succinct manner. I'll have more on the journey itself next week.

Ian Hunt, HOM guitarist and producer, was gracious enough to remix two of my favorite Haunting Oboe tracks for your free downloading pleasure. You won't find these mixes anywhere else!


"Passenger" - download

"Secret History" - download


The opening statement. This EP is exactly what it needed to be. Great use of quiet-loud dynamics, with hints of electronic tinkering. But pretty straightforward overall. This EP is a good introduction to the band for the uninitiated. Opener and closer "Behold, A Gremlin" and "Slavery In Space" are also two of their best live songs. Rating: 5 out of 6 Oboes

Concise, catchy, experimental. This being Valentine's month, the Oboes put their own spin on the holiday. This EP seems to document the emotional process of a relationship gone bad. Opener "Girl Problems" is about dysfunction (Girl problems on my mind and I can't even cry / The hills you built inside the web within my mind). It's the breakup song. Next is "Violand", a highly-addictive track based around a chopped up violin sample and George Cain's most Thome Yorke-ish howl repeating the line "Don't you run away" for three minutes. It's clearly the regret song, post-breakup. After regret comes righteous anger. How dare she break up with me! Hence, the bitterly titled "Girls On Fire" and its aggressive percussion. Then after the anger cools, there's the realization that you're alone, surrounded by nothing but a loud silence, as noted on the closing song "Rulers Break - Loud Silence". Rating: 6 of 6 Oboes

This is HOM's "country album". Though it does sound Southern at times, I can't imagine the line "I want to dissect a girl" ever finding its way into a Carrie Underwood song. Hank Jr., maybe. Opener "Cleveland, TX" is sparse and beautiful for its desolation and confusion. There's even a hint of The Beatles in it, which is cliche to say of any indie band these days, but it's really subtle. Not so subtle is the opening riff to the acoustic take on their 2007 rocker "Killer Meets The Queen". It sounds a lot like the riff from Lynard Skynard's "Simple Kind of Man". Hmm. The Queens-of-the-Stone-Age-meets-circus-music-on-acid closer "Intersection Collection" is a hidden gem in the 12-month project. Rating: 5 out of 6 Oboes

The most genre-diverse of the EPs, which can make it refreshing or frustrating depending on your mood. "Time and Energy" is the most un-Haunting Oboe Music song on the 12 EPs, but I love it. It's quirky and neurotic, yet the most overtly folk-rock HOM song. Like if Woody Allen made a Neil Young album. The opening horns and live boom-bap beat of "Wrist" make me wonder what a HOM hip-hop collaboration would sound like. As for "Stab You In The Neck While You're Awake", I think the lyrics are about hating your boss. Who can't relate to that? But the standout is "Homeless", a densely rich and visual instrumental piece that transitions between serene and frightening. Rating: 4 of 6 Oboes

Plays like a short collection of interludes -- instrumental and electronic. This is the most clever and playful of HOM's EPs. But because 2008 was a year that demanded sound and fury, this EP received little airplay in my stereo. I think 2009 will serve it better. This one's a grower. "While You're Running" tells me someone in the band listens to indie alt hip-hop (Anticon Records) and perhaps electro-dance (Holy Fuck). Rating: 3 of 6 Oboes

This is my absolute favorite EP in the bunch. It's the best sounding from a production standpoint, and it also supremely showcases the band's songwriting and arrangement talents. If May was experimental interludes and sketches, June is fully-realized, well-crafted songs. "Empty Foray" displays the kind of vulnerable and brutally honest lyrics mixed with a poppy uptempo song structure that earns spins on indie rock stations and college radio. Like a more palatable Deathcab, for people who find Deathcab sorta annoying. "Passenger" is my favorite recorded song by this band. It gives me manicky sped-up visions, like a mini David Lynch movie playing in my head. It's purposefully disorienting, even down to the cadence of the vocals. Sadly, the song never quite came together live. 6 of 6 Oboes

This split EP features two Haunting Oboe songs, two songs by Prayer For Animals, and one track featuring members of both bands. Call them brother bands (or sister, if you prefer). These guys play lots of shows together. PFA plays melodic and large-sounding blues-rock with hints of psychedelia, folk, and surf, and you can definitely hear that influence on the Oboes in these songs. Opener "Reaper" highlights one of HOM's most powerful weapons: vocal harmonizing. 4 of 6 Oboes

Opens with haunting trumpet music, courtesy of former member Jonathan Rudd. "Silent Rita" is reminiscent of the fluttering trumpet bursts, albeit more subdued, that end Radiohead's album Amnesiac. The rest of the EP turns out to be pretty mellow, like something you'd listen to on a lazy August Sunday afternoon. Somewhat folky, somewhat electronic, but weird all around. This is HOM at their most Animal Collective-ish. 3 of 6 Oboes

This EP feels like the sequel to February, in that the lyrics seem describe relationships. Opener "Brick By Brick" highlights one of HOM's greatest strengths: multi-part harmonies. Half way through, when the trumpet and sparkly percussion kick in, the song suddenly feels like a call to arms, with lines like "the only joke is you" and "you're running over me". The choppy (and Chopsticks-y) piano line on "Ups and Downs" is pop gold, with lyrics you can file under We've all been there before. Examples: "I'm tired of waiting on your word" and "I'll take you back". 5 of 6 Oboes

A mostly instrumental EP, consistent in mood and song structure. October is a series of methodically-churning songs that build and build the tension but never climax, at least not in the loud and cathartic manner that we expect from the Oboes by now. "You and Your Friends" shows drummer Anthony Johnson's strengths as a singer-songwriter. But, overall, this EP lacks the diversity of prior efforts. 3 of 6 Oboes

It seemed to be a pattern of HOM's to record an experimental, ethereal EP and follow it up with an EP of more focused straightforward rock songs (May to June, August to September). October is probably the most accessible EP for people not inclined toward the electronic interludes or extended instrumental jams. "Secret History" has high replay value with its catchy chorus and uptempo verses. "Hawkins", originally found on HOM's 2007 self-titled EP, is updated here to more accurately reflect the band's live sound. "Help Me Baby" is spacey heart-broken psychedelia. 5 of 6 Oboes

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that posed more questions than it answered? That's December, the unlikely conclusion to the 12-EP project. It's quiet, confident, and unsettling in a way that none of the previous EPs were. That they chose to open with a vocalist who isn't a member of the band is telling. A friend of the Oboes, songwriter David Shackelford, assures us in his deep croon that regardless of what we accomplish in life, it will be forgotten or misinterpreted or have unintended consequences. Something will always rot, he says. I don't think it was meant as a commentary on the project itself, but in a weird way it sort of is. HOM trumpet player Jonathan Rudd quit the band a month earlier. There were times when the band looked fatigued on stage and frustrated off, especially in the fall, nine or so EPs in. They said only half-jokingly on several occasions that they might just end the band altogether after they finished the EP project. And now that it's done, they're starting to realize that the work has only just begun. Now they have to let the world know what they've accomplished. And they have a shit-ton of new songs to learn live. But I have high confidence in the five remaining Oboes, and here's why: Haunting Oboe Music played two Free Week shows in early January. Maybe it was the weight being lifted, but these were two of the best HOM shows I've seen (and I've been to more than a dozen since 2007). The energy level and passion was evident. They didn't look tired as they had in previous shows during the project. They looked rejuvenated, hungry. If 2008 was HOM's year of unbridled creation, then I suspect 2009 will be the year of relentless promoting (tours, interviews, live shows around town). I look forward to it. They already proved in 2008 why Haunting Oboe Music is one of the most interesting bands in Austin. 6 of 6 Oboes

Stay tuned to 'Nites for more on Haunting Oboe Music soon. In the mean time, visit their website here. You can purchase their EPs at Waterloo Records in Austin, or online at iTunes or Amazon's mp3 store.

Here's a little bonus video I put together featuring short clips of some of the songs mentioned above...


Sugarbritches said...

is there a box-set of all 12 EPs that i can purchase or download or otherwise illegally acquire?

Ajay Miranda said...

Word from the Oboes is they like the idea of a box-set, but it's not official yet. We'll see. You can buy a few of the EPs for 89 cents per song at Amazon.

Anonymous said...

The hammer be the death of me.