erasing clouds

Hallelujah the Hills, Collective Psychosis Begone

reviewed by dave heaton

"…and everything'll probably be OK / collective psychosis begone"

Moments before lead singer Ryan Walsh utters those words, we listen to clanging mechanical sounds, as if we're inside someone's cartoon brain as the wheels turn. And certainly, indulging, pondering and celebrating the weird things people think is a part of Hallelujah the Hills' music, at least as I hear it. It was part of the Stairs’ music too – that great Massachusetts band morphed into Hallelujah the Hills. But where the Stairs’ weirdness had a dense and crunchy, dare-I-say classic rock-ness to it (especially on their second album On Sleep Lab), Hallelujah the Hills is brighter and joyous, sort of like the first word of the name implies. Horns that play for the skies help give this group of six the demented buoyancy of a Neutral Milk Hotel or similar ‘90s collective. But the songs themselves also have that rush of celebration within them.

They’re celebratory, but what are they celebrating? That’s the crux of it: their songs resemble puzzles, but also shouts of joy. Take, for example, their “theme song”, “Hallelujah the Hills” – forget your pet peeve about bands with songs of the same name, it’s a remarkably catchy rock/pop song in the style of a school marching band playing the university fight song (…crossed with Pavement, or maybe Beulah, that is). But the hook of it, the hey-let’s-all-sing-along part of it, goes like this, “I was born in Vermont / she was born in Vermont / we’ll all die in Vermont / hallelujah the hills!” Not exactly the band’s version of a sitcom theme song, is it? And it opens more like Borges or Kafka: “trouble comes / the mail arrives / I pick apart a broken watch.” And then rushes through Telemundo, and the Dairy Mart, and the death of the novel, and “mathmagicians” (a great word). And that’s how the album is in general – smart, strange series of words find their way onto rising pop melodies that resemble rays of light, making you feel like a new day has dawned. But of course they’ve also got loud electric guitars with them, rock n’ roll drums, random bursts of beautifully strange electricity.

It’s fun and games, but weird in the best ways. The brief “(The Crux of the Camera Man)” is a warped sing-along that I just love…and then after it comes the rocked-up version of the same basic song (“Slow Motion Records at Breakneck Speeds”), a nice uniting device. There’s perfect pop melodies hidden in the rock frames of numbers like “Wave Backwards to Massachusetts”, but there’s some strange drifts of folksy surrealism throughout the album as well. And shadowy figures up to who knows what – that seems like an album theme: scientists or psychiatrists or inventors or other sorts of experimenters are doing something new and weird, playing with ideas or molecules or bodies or the fabric of the universe. That’s all somehow so fitting for the music itself, for Hallelujah the Hills’ dashing sort of messing-about.

"I'm a planet, I'm the moon / I'm barely in this room / won't somebody please shake me awake"

The album opens with a wake-up song and ends with a goodbye song. The wake-up song – which, of course, feels musically like we’re still in a dream -- sets us up as members of some shadowy company (“good morning comrade this is good coffee / let's take a walk and peruse the reports / this will look a lot worse than it'll hurt”). And the goodbye song, more literally narrative than many of the songs here, bears the great title “To All My Scientist Colleagues I Bid You Farewell” and again has characters on their own secret missions, transplanting retinas and doing who-knows-what else. Hallelujah the Hills are on a mission of their own, secret in style (they speak in secrets) but this time we can all share in it, bask in it, start and end our days with it.


this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2007 erasing clouds