Glory Hope Mountain
(Paper Bag; 2007)
By Conrad Amenta | 15 October 2007
There was a specific promise made by what I consider the Acorn’s real coming out, this year’s still-excellent Tin Fist EP. For those of us who cohabitate this Ottawa band’s occasional space it was a stunner, both a moment of clarity and a coming to terms — okay, so Acorn aren’t “just” a local band, that dude who played with the Recoilers and that other dude from Soft Disaster and the guy I went to school with and I don’t know the fourth. It’s difficult to articulate how it feels to listen to something that proclaims, however unintentionally, that what was once just a group of people falling ass backwards into a scene is now an honest-to-god band. I’ve long subscribed to the notion of an arbitrary, largely unfair qualitative divide between bands that play in basements and local clubs and bands that simply transcend to a larger stage where they stand shoulder to shoulder with professional musicians. This isn’t a transcendence to fame, understand, or a singularity that is paradoxically perpetuated by a hyperactive blogosphere. It’s a passage into legitimization. And that divide is crossed in the listening: for me Tin Fist announced Acorn’s graduation from fun band to see in an empty Ottawa bar half-buried under snow to a band to read up on from the other side of the country.
So what to do with Glory Hope Mountain, their sophomore (though first collaborative and widely purchasable) album? That’s a bit more complicated. I don’t usually quote directly from bios, but there’s a few tripwire lines there that impede a template review, particularly: “Part biographical narrative, part surreal fairy tale, GHM is the story of Gloria Esperanza Montoya. Based on interviews recorded in early 2006 by her son, Acorn songwriter Rolf Klausener, the album is a sonic retelling of the stories from her early life in Honduras” and, even more eccentrically, “following 9 months of preparatory work, which included ethnomusicological research into the folk traditions of the Garifuna and Miskito people of Honduras and Nicaragua.” One is immediately tempted to throw a blanket statement over the whole affair, to reassert that concept records are supposed to arrive at spot number four in the discog, after the sophomore slump and return to form. Maybe something about first generation Canadiana and our tendency to problematically romanticize ethnicity, or my tendency to problematize that romance in the name of knee-jerk PC overcompensation (hey, M.I.A.). There’s no famishing the framework, even if maybe GHM is just a nice thing for Rolf to do for his mom.
There’s a kernel of the dispassionate listener’s distinguishing ear that intrudes and complicates the fact that I’ll probably run into one of these guys while buying milk: why should we care? One good blanket statement deserves another, so here it is: the most well-respected indie rock is adept at proliferating abstract and/or universal platitudes, ceremonially matching lyrical themes to major or minor chord tonal aesthetics and allowing the listener to fill the gaps themselves. That no one will mistake GHM for an album about their girlfriend or the summer before going off to college is going to kick sand in the eyes of Klausner and co.‘s idealism, the squeaky clean concept, their “how-dare-they?!” presumption to make their album about something. And when it comes to my role as the critic, the album’s concept doesn’t ask for more construction since that’s already provided; it’s easier to look at this music in the simpler terms of “does GHM convey what it hopes to convey?”
Well let’s see: GHM includes what were the life-shifting touchstones of Montoya’s “mother’s death during childbirth, a near drowning at the hands of a flash flood, and the escape from her abusive father.” Check, check, and check. And let’s not be too cynical about this, those are definitely some stories. More relevant, perhaps, is that as a personal document of a story that’s existence is self-legitimizing the album’s answer to the question of “why should I care?” is “who asked you to?” This isn’t Peter Gabriel or David Byrne telling us which polyrhythms bear paying attention to because of some misguided sense of westerner’s guilt or geek-out fascination. For all the supposed ethnomusicology and concept at work—and I’ll be honest in saying that I don’t recognize or care to locate much of it—_GHM_ is an indie rock album through and through. It’s the band’s hard-earned ability to assemble a tuneful set that saves the album from becoming a curiosity on the shelves of casual consumers or overshadowed by its own concept via lazy writers.
Stranger still is the album’s patience in the face of de facto-debut expectations. Beyond the cadenced disarray of “The Flood Pt. 1” and “Low Gravity,” which are the album’s predictably placed early- and mid-album crescendos, much more depends on Klausner’s tremulous vocals and acoustic underpinning. In some places the patience culminates into a swell, as with opener “Hold Your Breath,” but much of the album shrugs in its refusal to pander. One is reminded that Acorn started as a hazy bedroom project envisioned and performed primarily by Klausner and an array of various guests. For all the collaborative nature of the album, and that collaboration extends to members of Ottawa and Toronto’s indie community, it feels even more intimately Klausner’s than what was ostensibly his solo debut. Even on songs like “Crooked Legs,” which shifts inevitably to the second half of the album’s folk/rock dichotomy, the preface reasserts that this is a settled, often staid band. Ultimately, that translates into a lasting listen less dependent on the infectiousness of a chorus or hyperbolic production. “Oh Napoleon” may not announce itself hysterically from your party playlist, but it will come to rest comfortably into whatever personal space you make for it.
“Ambitious” is a surprisingly contrary word, and often no favors are done to the neck of a band it’s shackled ‘round. Its unofficial synonyms may end up being “pretentious,” “impatient,” or “unfocused.” And it’s not as if the indie rock album is an ideal medium with which to convey a cohesive narrative. But the Acorn have succeeded despite these inherent handicaps, despite the suspicion evoked by the art’s healthy enthusiasm and specified plot, precisely because they don’t try to work past issues endemic to an entire genre. GHM is an intensely personal album, one that can’t help but be anything but indecipherable to those outside of the Klausner family and his friends. Nor does it try to be. There’s something fascinating—and not at all belligerent—about that. An album bejeweled by its details, consistently listenable and saving some of its most accessible moments (like “Antenna”) for last, I’ll be the first to say it’s tough to let go of what I had long considered a local secret. Make your hometown proud, boys. We’re rooting for you.