Hanging Hills
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Hanging Hills

Willimantic, Connecticut, United States | SELF

Willimantic, Connecticut, United States | SELF
Band Rock Folk

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Wonder what a folk rock album inspired by the Civil War, American Impressionism, and rural living would sound like? Probably not what you’d expect, probably a little better. To find out for sure, you can listen to the debut full-length album from Hanging Hills, The Great Divide. When I reviewed their eponymous EP last year, I was confused as to why the cover art was a Civil War general. It all starts to make more sense on this album. The band seems to have a love for all things old-timey; there are themes of ancestors, American history, and battles in the lyrics. They’ve also got a thing for the natural world; for one, “I’m Not Going Home” describes the seasons around the United States, plus the band took their name from a mountain range in their home state of Connecticut that has its own set of old-timey legends. As you can guess, this all comes together to make an album with well-thought out lyrics and a relaxed yet lush sound.

Hanging Hills turned to Kickstarter to help fund this album, which meant that extra splurges to make the album more lush were now affordable, and it shows. The band hired artists to play pedal steel, organ, and strings, so the songs are rich and layered without being overworked. There are upbeat songs, though nothing about this album seems fast-paced, as each note is spaced out and there is hang time between each strum. Even so, there are enough layers of instruments and enough power in each note to maintain interest. The album doesn’t feel drawn out, just relaxed. I’m a big supporter of including the banjo in more songs, and Hanging Hills features one on “The Great Divide,” which serves as both the opening and title track. Somehow even with a banjo and a pedal steel in the same song, the slow pace, dramatic percussion, and sweeping backing vocals keep this from veering too far into country territory. “The Crossing” is an instrumental track and shows where the Kickstarter money went. It’s lush and well-constructed, including many of those extra instruments from the hired hands. There’s something luxurious about this album even though it is mostly made of the same simple elements that make up most folk rock music these days, like guitar, drums, and the occasional organ bit. It can’t all be the pedal steel, so it likely comes down to good arrangements.

The vocals are good, though the spacing can be a little odd at times; for example, on “The Great Divide,” it takes three very drawn out lines to say “my great/grand/fa-ther.” I felt like I had to sit, wait, and piece together what they were trying to say when the words (or parts of words) were spaced out like that. Some songs feature harmonies that bring Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to mind (“The Things I Long to Be” especially). The backing vocals add more than sound, they add feeling. The echoey lead and backing vocals work perfectly on “This Strange Life,” making you feel like something strange is indeed going on. On “Here Come the Troops,” the backing vocals convey the excitement and hopefulness of the first half of the song, and the lack of them in the second half conveys disillusionment (see more on that below).

If you have any interest in the Civil War, the lyrics to “Here Come the Troops” are pretty neat. My best guess is that it’s told from the perspective of a civilian spectator at the first battle at Bull Run. He’s one of the northerners who dressed up and brought a picnic to watch the battle, but then had to walk home along the same road as the retreating Union army. The song matches the mood a spectator would have felt that day; it’s upbeat with high-spirited cymbals and hopeful vocals at the beginning and the lyrics speak of prettying oneself and hurrying to see the army march into town. It’s all exciting as the general smiles at him and he can hear the drums and fife. A little more than halfway through, the mood changes and things get a bit darker. The cymbals crash, the guitar takes over where the banjo left off. The lyrics tell of having no where to go but the road and how the disillusioned spectator has to tell himself that he never gave a damn about the soldiers (turns out watching people kill each other isn’t as fun as it sounds, even with a picnic lunch). There is so much history and thought packed into this song that I can only imagine the references I’m missing in the other songs (I’m a Canadian, so my knowledge of American history is limited to what I’ve learned from TV). There is more than history in the lyrics, though. There are ponderings on life in “The Things I Long to Be” and “This Strange Life”; for some reason, “This City Life” sounds like it could belong in the next Muppets movie if Kermit needed a musical number to explain why he couldn’t adjust to the city even though Miss Piggy had her heart set on living there. Come on, “the city lights blind me from the stars” sounds like a Kermit-esque complaint, does it not?

At the very least, the songs are pleasant and well-crafted. With attentive listening (and maybe a little background research), they tell rich stories. So for lush, relaxed folk rock with a historic twist, try Hanging Hills. - Surviving the Golden Age


To say the American Civil War is one of the most studied and fascinating periods of American History would be a gross understatement. It is a handful of years that have been dissected in every way imaginable. The people, the places, the causes and effects, all of it has been absorbed into our collective consciousness in ways the average person can’t fathom. It’s apparently had a profound impact on Connecticut’s Hanging Hills as well, seeing as the War Between The States is a recurring theme on their debut album, The Great Divide. But this is no one-trick pony. The music held within this collection of songs is not unlike the conflict in which they often wax poetic about – steeped in romanticism, and sense of mysterious wonderment.

Some of the most well-known stories of the Civil War are also the most bizarre. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson being accidentally shot by his own men. There was only one civilian casualty during the three-day battle of Gettysburg and poor Jennie Wade took a stray bullet that wasn’t meant for anyone in town. During the first major battle of the conflict at Bull Run politicians and the wealthy Northerners packed a picnic lunch and came down from Washington to watch the battle as if it were some sort of perverted sport (only to be appalled at the carnage and eventually run off the field by their retreating army). Hanging Hills, even when telling stories unrelated to the Civil War have a similar affect on the listener. There is a familiarity to the music yet no matter how many listens through there are still stories told here that are just too full of awe-inducing moments to ever grow tired of hearing them.

Beautiful and poignant lyrics are draped around spacious and lush musical pieces like the accoutrements of a vast musical dwelling. The structure itself is gorgeous, but it never hurts to spruce the place up with as much decorative flair as possible. The foundation for The Great Divide is a sturdy mixture of indie folk, Americana, and even 70’s singer songwriter touches. Hanging Hills aren’t afraid to bust out the pedal steel when it calls for it, risking the dreaded “country” tag that so many artists of their ilk try to avoid like the plague. Their loss is another band’s gain, I suppose. The vocals themselves are full of delectable harmonies, a la Simon & Garfunkel or CSNY. In fact the individual and combined efforts of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are a great place to start if you are looking for some type of benchmark to compare this album to. Rich and soulful in both songwriting and delivery, Hanging Hills have delivered a winner. These are songs that would feel equally at home sitting around a campfire on someone’s farm as they would on the stage of some giant music hall. Resonating off of historic walls or sailing up to the heavens to kiss the stars in a plume of smoke, either way this music has a comforting vibe that has the power to engulf everyone in earshot.

This album would be impressive regardless of it being a debut album, but the fact that it is adds a level of excitement for what this band has in store for years to come. You can get a taste of the entire album over at the Hanging Hills Bandcamp Page. - Lonesome Noise


Discography

Hanging Hills EP (available for streaming and free download at http://hanginghills.bandcamp.com/ )

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Bio

It all started when G.W. Dyson grew tired of just himself and an acoustic guitar. He envisioned more from his songs, so Mike Arcata brought his drum kit over and they started practicing together. The drums made for a nice accompaniment, and they played some shows together, but there still needed to be more. After a brief hiatus during the summer of 2011, G.W. switched to electric, and the two enlisted mutual companion Max Robinson in on bass. The sound was getting there, but they now needed a name. The band turned to American folklore for inspiration, and stumbled upon a dark story from their home state of Connecticut—The Black Dog of the Hanging Hills.

The three played shows throughout the Connecticut area during 2011 and the beginning of 2012. By the summer it was time to get into the studio, so they recorded their debut self-titled EP. It received local acclaim. “It sweeps you away in a sea of warm tones and beautiful songs.” (ctindie.com). The well regarded release was exciting for a bit, but a problem emerged because of it. There were multiple lead guitar parts on the record, but Hanging Hills had no lead guitarist. They played a few shows with no lead. It felt lacking, so they once again went on a search for a new member. They found Elliott Woolworth, a fellow musician of the Willimantic scene, where Hanging Hills is based.

Band Members