(Rough Trade; 2005)

By Matt Stephens | 18 September 2007

Indie rock should, theoretically, espouse innovation above all else, but of late it’s often been quite the reverse. For the much of the '00s, we’ve been trapped in a nostalgia vacuum touching virtually every rock era of the last half century, to the point where we can no longer discern what’s pure imitation (the Caesars, the fucking Bravery) from what’s merely retro-influenced (Interpol, Bloc Party). I mean, sure, we all love us a bit of Frog Eyes or Sung Tongs, but admit it: of all the records you own from the last two years, there’s probably a solid half of them you could see your mom giving some love on the car stereo.

Certainly, Hal is one such record. There is not a single original idea in the 43 minutes of the self-titled debut of the Dublin group; every note, rhythm, structure, turn of phrase, every strum of a guitar, feels borrowed or stolen from any of a number of summery '60s acts (really, mostly just the Beach Boys), with a few new wave flourishes popping up sporadically along the way. Hal is, cheerfully and unabashedly, pastiche. For once, though, I’m not complaining.

This is how pastiche is supposed to be done -- with reverence, yes, but also with a sense of real eagerness and zeal. Take a song like “Play the Hits,” a three and a half-minute burst of sunshine just waiting to soundtrack a Southern California beach party. Hal pulls out every trick in Brian Wilson’s bag, even sounding virtually identical to ’65-era Beach Boys in the chorus, but you’ll be too busy shaking your ass and grinning stupidly to let it bother you. Elsewhere, “Keep Love as Your Golden Rule” and “I Sat Down” show siblings Dave and Paul Allen’s natural vocal chemistry, as well as producer Edwin Collins’ sharp attention to detail. Hal’s real standout, though, is “My Eyes are Sore,” a multi-sectioned five-minute plus opus (at least by this band’s standards), that, unlike the work of fellow countrymen The Thrills, is a Pet Sounds homage that sounds legitimately psychedelic. Hal shifts tempos and melodies with a confidence rare in a band of their age and experience, and it points to interesting possibilities on the horizon, should this pony ever want to learn a new trick or two.

So, all told, Hal is basically just a pleasant, fun album. It runs out of good ideas after "Worry About the Wind," by which point the group’s syrupy harmonies and goofy sincerity has worn out its welcome anyway. Still, it’s hard to judge this record too harshly. It certainly won’t change your life, but play it through a few times and you’ll be humming these tunes for weeks on end. The objective, keen-eared critic in me wants to dismiss Hal outright as a bland homage to mid-'60s California rock, but the part of me that loves The Beach Boys and The Beatles and can’t wait for summer couldn’t care less.