“Paper Fins” by Wooden Houses
When you think about it, it’s truly remarkable that a band can release an album without a record label simply by putting it online. OK, well, maybe it doesn’t seem that remarkable, but that record selling successfully and launching the artist to stardom would be pretty impressive. The thing is, with the revolution in the music industry, this is starting to happen. Yeah, it’s impressive that Radiohead can release In Rainbows not only without a label, but also allowing people to download it basically for free, but Radiohead has long been an established international super-band – their iconic status is historically secure. Therefore I find it more stunning when Bon Iver puts out For Emma… Forever Ago and strikes gold, because he/they went from totally unknown and to “making it.” For Emma is a gorgeous debut album, but I’m as taken by the story of a heart-broken young man who trucks off to a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, knocks out an album he doesn’t think much of, and ends up on David Letterman. I love it when the wallflower gets asked to the dance. I love it when humble talent hits the spotlight. It gives me hope.
If you’ve ever had a talented friend, and I mean, a stunningly talented friend that makes you think, “Wait… The Jonas Brothers can make their living as musicians and this friend of mine can’t?” – well, our current musical revolution is for you. The de-centralization of the industry, fueled by the universal public stage of the internet and the price-tag of a home recording studio that is shrinking quicker than the public’s trust in government, has opened the doors to countless musicians who would never have had opportunity otherwise. Of course, some of the beautiful souls puttering around in their free time don’t really have the chops to make it, and there are a select few who will be successful, or deemed worthy of producing art for their living.
There will always be people with questionable skill who have found an audience (I will never fully understand the success of Stephanie Meyer or Danielle Steele, and thankfully I’m not alone), just as there will always be ridiculously talented folks who play only for their families or small coffee shop crowds. The growing indie-blog and music review sites (see pitchfork and gorilla vs. bear) help to provide exposure and sort the talented from the hacks, but there is still so much mystery to just how you “make it”. In the end, success seems left to chance meetings, who you know, and variables outside our control. Many a person knows the struggle of the starving artist who’s been driven to despair and forced to give up the dream for a “real” job. Sometimes, the death of the dream is mercy, sometimes it’s misery.
Enter Corey Hart. No, not the I Wear My Sunglasses at Night version, and not the outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers. This Corey Hart is a singer-songwriter living in Madison, Wisconsin, trying to “make it” as a musician. He recently released an album (available exclusively on itunes) with guitarist Danny Johnson under the name Wooden Houses. The duo recorded in Johnson’s home in South Carolina, then finding the best, and most inexpensive engineer they could to master the tracks. The result is a nine song journey through time and subtle shifts of musical genre; the album begins with alt-country ballads, takes a rest stop in bluesy-finger bending land, only to take a few dips in the pool of dreamy, hypnotic melodies before landing back in gorgeous folk storytelling. It’s worth a listen if only for the way one musician can spread his wings across so much earth and still make you feel close to home as he soars.
And make no mistake, Hart does soar. The quality of his voice is apparent from the opening lines of Paper Fins, an upbeat folk love song which also demonstrates Hart’s talent as a word-smith as he sings about giving his beloved, “every copper leaf that falls… from every shaken bare-boned tree… when autumn calls.” The song is a steadily rolling ride whose upbeat tempo betrays the pain of unrequited love described in the lyrics. The ride slows down during Cowboy Song, the most “country” song on the album, as Hart holds your hand through the journey of a young man losing his father and trying to become a man himself. He says it best himself, telling us, “I’m not a cowboy, I’m just playing the role of my old man. Just to prove to the two of us that I can.” Hart flexes his vocal muscle on the last chorus, downshifting from his feathery falsetto to gorgeous roar. There is something moving about his voice breaking through the boundaries he’s previously set; it’s like watching a runner find another gear during a race. Throughout the album you begin to feel that this is a trademark move from Hart – he leads you in with sweet whispers only to bring you to tears with his emotional, full voiced, offering. Lonely Miss Liar tells the story of a girl paralyzed by her own unrealistic expectations of love. The guitar work on this track is catchy and layered, strolling merrily as Hart opens the door on a girl sentenced to a life of loneliness with no one to blame but herself.
The album changes course ever so slightly on Still in the Snow, where dirty-bluesy finger bending contrasts with Hart’s lilting falsetto to create a haunting little groove. The fifth track, Porpoises, is the shortest track, as well as the most unique track on the album. Featuring the piano, the song is a slow, ambient journey – rhythmic like the ocean – where Hart’s falsetto-to-fierce style is on display yet again. The lyrics “we’ve squandered buried treasures… that have not been found yet” are my favorite lines on the album, and they build with potency each time they’re repeated.
Just like his ability to make much of two simple lines in Porpoises, Hart does a hell of a lot with basically two chords on Titanic Eyes, crafting a dark and brooding song about a drug addict that builds until Hart’s typical magnanimous vocal climax. This is, however, the one place on the album where I have a disagreement (albeit minor) with the arrangement of the tracks. Titanic Eyes has a driving acoustic rhythm that I think fits better as a transition between the bluesy Still in the Snow and the airy Porpoises. In fact, Porpoises, Constant Resolve, and Fast Asleep have such similar slow-flowing, dreamy feels that they seem to belong together. (Hart has his reasons, however. When asked about the arrangement of tracks, he stated that he conceived the album as vinyl record, five songs on the first side, ending with the gently floating Porpoises. This way, Titanic Eyes leads side two with a jolt before settling back into the melting melodies of the next two tracks.)
But I’m not complaining, and the flow of the album doesn’t detract from the artistry of each track. Whether he’s spinning metaphors about pirate’s treasure (Porpoises) or finding new planets (Constant Resolve), the musical craftsmanship of each song, (to use Hart’s words from Constant Resolve), “just feels so right”. These are songs that unfold in a ways that seem as if they couldn’t possibly be constructed any other way.
The album concludes with the heartbreakingly lovely Eleanor, where you can picture Hart singing on a country porch to his teary-eyed wife. I know his wife, and the song makes her cry. Let me add, for honesty’s sake, that she’s not alone. It took maybe 25 listens and much over-analysis to keep my eyes from welling up with tears. Eleanor has Hart returning to his finger-picking, story-telling, folk style, as he closes the album with a warm sound and a terribly sad tale.
Like all good stories, the one’s told by Corey Hart with Wooden Houses reference deep issues without being trite. Hart is a talented artist not simply because of his incredible voice and carefully layered songs, but because he tells stories that make you think, “hey, I’ve felt like that.” These songs are an authentic exploration of themes we can all relate to – what it means to love, lose, hope, dream, hurt, and try. Hell, the whole album is an exercise of passion, written by a young man who loves music and wants nothing more than to make his living sharing his gift. Corey Hart is one artist who I hope gets to quit his day job to follow his dream. Take a listen and let me know if you agree.
Check out Wooden Houses on itunes or visit coreyhartmusic to check out Hart’s previously released 5 song EP.
Through listening to the Wooden Houses album the general sense that grew on me was something like feeling that I was listening only to the left channel of a thicker sound. Listening to the arrangement and production of the album leads me to feel that this man needs a band behind him. The album is what it is, two guys recording a fine collection of songs: two guitars and only occasionally the added shaker, reverbed harmonies, or atmospheric effect. The first three tracks and the beautiful closing song, “Eleanor” stay solidly in the realm of alt-folk muses where the sparse, acoustic production fits perfectly but halfway through Still in the Snow, the fourth track, something creeps into the music that reminds me of Radiohead’s (can i call them ballads?) softer, less schizophrenically effected songs — think “Fake Plastic Trees”, or “Exit Music (for a Film)”— and the music asks for a more elaborate instrumental weightiness to match the intensity of Hart’s voice. This is most notable in Titanic Eyes; Hart works himself into a red-faced bellow by the end of the song but no matter how much distortion and reverb is ladled on, two guitars simply can’t provide him the musical support he needs to match the emotional punch of the song. Constant Resolve is another track that asks for a larger arrangement; it’s a quality song with a lolling, meandering pace but it flirts heavily with sonic aimlessness where a larger musical ensemble could have given the song the narrative movement needed to keep the audience attentive in between the strung-out falsetto lyric phrases. As Kroening wrote earlier, Hart does indeed soar, my only complaint is that it’s a shame that he doesn’t always have a big enough musical aeroplane to bring us with him.
If you listen to Titanic Eyes, and then this 2007 recording of “Designed to be a Fool” (the song that won Hart Madison’s Songwriter of the Year award) where Hart is supported by a backing band I think you will hear what I am talking about. There are times when Hart’s music is simply too big to be contained by a few guitars. My thought is that when Corey Hart imagined this as a double sided vinyl that he was on to something, he may really have two complimentary EP’s here, a fantastic and heart-felt alt-folk record and another EP of more epic and mysterious indie-rock storytelling. Had I released this album I may have released the two halves separately like that, hoping that the first would excite some public attention to collect some backing musicians for the second release. On the other hand, had this been my album there would have been a multitude of much more devastating short-comings than style of release, so I am more than content to let Corey Hart be Corey Hart and keep my hands out of his business. For whatever questions I have about this album, Wooden Houses is a solid release and the high quality of songwriting here gives me ample trust in Hart’s abilities for the future as he continues to build upon his already impressive craftsmanship.