Harpswell Sound
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Harpswell Sound


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Just when it was threatening to reach long-awaited status, Harpswell Sound have released the follow-up to 2004’s full-length debut, Skylight, and its timing is perfect for the lazy heat and humidity that awaits us. Let’s Go Anyway is an album awash in warm embracing guitars, mid-afternoon sleepy vocals, and sentiments perfect for that nine o’clock dusk where everything is possible and nothing really matters.

It is also the album every Harpswell fan should have been hoping for, showing a clear step forward in arrangement, confidence, and maturity, but abandoning none of the poetic songwriting or guitar-based alt-country sound that made them worth following in the first place. Where Wilco have taken alt-country into realms alternatingly electronica and piano ditty, and the Jayhawks get so poppy they threaten to become the Kingston Trio, Harpswell Sound have captured that alt-country soul, full of rockabilly and Hank Williams and pedal steel, and combined it with an indie rock winsomeness that’s really hard not to fall in love with.

For this album, Harpswell Sound have been helped along by mixer/masterer Kramer, one-time head of Shimmy Disc Records, which released discs by progressive rock heroes King Missile and the academic metalheads GWAR. He was also the bassist for Ween and the Butthole Surfers for a while. Lately, he’s turned his talents back to mastering, where Kramer feels the industry has been let down by certain high-profile masterers (he doesn’t name names), who depend too heavily on compression and making every level come back to the norm.

Thus, Kramer has let fly on Let’s Go Anyway with every bright guitar shimmer and thrilling half-wail uttered by lead vocalist (most of the time) Trey Hughes. His mix is spot-on, too, letting the vocals come to the fore, supported by layers of guitars and organ that provide a foundation you could sink in permafrost.

Often, the songs build from the barest of sounds, like the wonderful “Tankful of Gas,” which opens with a solo guitar piece, joined after a verse by the bass and Mike Dank’s always crisp drums, and then echoed an octave higher by a second guitar. Like many of the songs here, it’s a yearning tune about everyday losses and struggles: “Days like this get filled up so quick/With food, fun, admissions, errands, and lists.” This leads into the first chilling chorus, built for teary-eyed singalongs by high-school sweethearts heading off to different colleges in the cars daddy bought them. “I miss you now,” Hughes agonizes, “I knew that I would/And I know sometimes missin’ you’s good.” He draws the words out so that the spaces can be filled by a melancholy organ wash, a perfect stand-in for that missing love: “You’re the space between words, when words go slow.” Then the song finishes with a guitar break that impresses with its subtlety, just slightly fuzzed out, rough around the edges like the light coming in the window in the morning after a bit of a bender.

But Harpswell won’t let you wallow in their sound for too long. They follow “Gas” immediately with the jump blues of “Skitter,” showing off the rockabilly chops of new-found bassist Kris Day, of King Memphis and Sean Mencher Combo fame. Throughout the album, Day ably fills the hole left by the “retired” John Takami, but one has to wonder how Day can continue with bands as successful and busy as King Memphis and his soon-to-be mates in Jerks of Grass and remain committed to a band like Harpswell Sound, who’ve so successfully separated themselves with an original and engaging sound.

I certainly would try to find a way to keep him around after the performance he puts in on the instrumental “Ride” (and how can you argue with a band who makes room for an instrumental on its 13-song album?). The piece opens psychedelic like the Sadies can be, a call and response between the two guitars, one bouncing a quick strum, the other following with a quick run of notes. But Day’s bass drives the song early, a Latin vamp recalling Built to Spill in its more aggressive moments. At almost exactly the half-way point, though, the tune takes a serious slow-down, while guitars talk to each other about where they want the song to go. Are we hearing some improv in the third minute here? Finally, everything quiets and the bass comes back in, following the guitar lines for melody until the finish. Exquisite.

“Ride” is sandwiched between Ron Harrity’s two turns on lead vocals, neither of which quite live up to the excellent “Funfair” from Skylight, but definitely add an infusion of pop and intrigue, especially with the not-as-silly-as-it-sounds “Walking Rabbits.” A modern honky-tonk, listen for the chord walks from the G to the C.

The disc finishes with the epic nostalgia tune, “Sing for You,” which could easily serve as ode to wife or daughter. Hughes begins the piece solo, with bright and naked guitar chords. Talk about mixing? You’ll never notice when the bass and drums enter. “The sidewalks round he - Portland Phoenix 05.31.06

Cancel the sophomore slump story. Harpswell Sound's second full-length is anything but a disappointment. Picking up right where they left off with their debut release, Skylight, the band delivers Let's go anyway, a collection of 13 literate, rootsy songs that rock.

It's hard to fathom how they pulled this off while also working on an as-yet-unreleased children's album and breaking in new bassist Kris Day – Jonathan Takami departed amicably late last year. It's a testament to the professionalism and chops of Day (who also plays in King Memphis and Sean Mencher's combo) and his new partner in rhythm, the very musical drummer Mike Dank. Dank and Day provide a rock-solid foundation for Let's go anyway, and their splashes of sonic color add textures and surprises throughout what is easily the best local release of 2006 to date.

Harpswell Sound has a strong command of the rock vocabulary. They use that knowledge to great effect here, referencing the slick, FM pop-rock of the '70s ("Beside the road"); the dirty, guitar-driven surf-rock of the late '60s ("Ride"); the quick-picked shuffles of the late '50s ("Skitter"); and the indie-rock aesthetic of the last few decades ("Crockpot" and "Bang"). Hearing Harpswell Sound take these diverse influences and make them their own is one of this album's many joys.

The principal vocals and instruments on Let's go anyway were recorded live last January, in the acoustically splendid North Yarmouth Academy choir room. Legendary indie-rock figure Kramer (the producer/musician who's worked with Low, Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500, Bongwater, Half Japanese, etc., etc.) did the final mixing and mastering at Noise Miami.

In a remarkable and fortuitous example of cyber networking, it was Kramer who contacted Harpswell Sound after he heard songs posted on the band's MySpace page. Kramer mixed the just-recorded batch of tunes that would become Let's go anyway, and a few weeks later, he contacted the band to ask how they'd feel about him adding some Hammond B3 organ.

Not a problem? Good, he replied, I already did it.

Halfway through the first track, "All the same," it's clear Kramer hasn't lost his magic touch. His dripping B3 fills are a perfect addition to the band's already rich sound. And on "Tankful of gas," the organ-driven bridge is groovy and fun, taking both the song and the band to a new level without overshadowing either.

Collaborating with Kramer was a stroke of luck, to be sure, but Let's go anyway is first and foremost Harpswell Sound's shining achievement. Listening to these songs, you realize why someone with Kramer's resume would go out of his way to work with this relatively unknown Maine band.

Lead vocalist and principal lyricist Trey Hughes has written a fine batch of songs about family, love, loss, and home, set against the seasons and shifting weather of Portland. Hughes sings with his trademark disregard for traditional melody and inflection, a style that forces the listener to take notice and regard his voice as an instrument – alongside Ron Harrity's swirling and inventive guitar leads – as well as a vehicle for his lyrics.

"The sun's stretched out/And drenched a few clouds/I could spend the whole day on the stairs to our house/But days like this/Get filled up so quick/With food-finding missions, errands, and lists," he sings on "Tankful of gas." "I miss you now/I knew that I would/And I know sometimes/Missing you's good/It takes more than time to stay in one place/We'll find you again, oh our traveling days."

Hughes is in peak form as a writer and vocalist on "More than rain," a tender father-daughter song that's arguably the most hummable tune on the album. "It takes your whole arm…/To put the hair out of your eyes…/You'll run around and turn…/When you hear a song you like…/It takes more than rain…/To slow or bring you down…/Though all I'd have to say…/'Hot chocolate, how's that sound?'"

These songs are full of clouds, cold, snow, rain, puddles. "And all the leaves/Pushed like a sweater pushes sleeves/Up the arm of the street," Hughes sings on "Crockpot." "Crockpots, window frost, and wool socks/The sun shines all the time, but never heats up."

Like many great rock bands, Harpswell Sound is graced with a secondary lyricist who brings his own gifts to the party. In addition to his fantastic turns on guitar throughout Let's go anyway, Harrity has written two pop gems for the record, "Bang" and the acoustic "Walking rabbits." His songs provide a nice change of pace in the middle of the album, book-ending the driving instrumental "Ride."

"Can't you hear the forest band?/twilight time will bring the crowd to the stands," Harrity sings on "Walking rabbits." "How I love to hear them croon, out of tune/like only rabbits do."

–Tom Flynn - The Bollard 05.30.06

Harpswell Sound's slow, thoughtful rock is as beautiful as the majestic area of coastal Maine that shares the same name as the band. Skylight, Harpswell Sound's first full-length album, starts as smooth as the cold beverage that should compliment your first listen. "Set the Anchor", the album's first track, seems to paint the end of your long day with a perfectly constructed, minute-long introduction. This collection of sound (pay special attention to the slide guitar) sets your world numb with joy before easy, simple lyrics take you to a point of relaxation and enjoyment only the more talented bands have the ability to accomplish. After the first track, listener's might be reaching for headphones, or at least turning up their hi-fi with hopes that the rest of the album will continue to own their mind and body as it has thus far. Good news for the listener, it does. Skylight's first few tracks may make bodies glad to be home and done with work, but don't think that this album will put anyone to sleep. The tempo throughout the album increases with each track, save the final two songs, giving the necessary ten minutes to close eyes and lose all thoughts and concerns in the music before getting up and starting dinner a smile on your face. "You Find the Falls" and "A Bit Less" are songs that will continue to keep listener's minds at ease yet begin to circulate their blood. With the warm sounds and fitting vocals found at the beginning of the album, Harpswell Sound brings a level of excitement with these two songs that could easily leave listeners dancing in their kitchen. By the time dinner is done the album might be on it's last, most impressive track. "Until Then" is a nine and a half-minute song could set the sun if it wanted to. It's a perfect ending to a nearly perfect album that might be the perfect ending to your day. - Northeast Performer Magazine

Their five-song introduction to the Portland scene, Port, was enough to pique interest and create the desired buzz. Less than a year later, Harpswell Sound’s debut full-length, Skylight, delivers on all that early promise. Populated with a collection of finely crafted tunes that waver between the winsome and wrathful, Skylight’s surprises make it a great first listen, and there’s plenty of depth to make it something that will stick around in the five-disc changer.

The songs come in three varieties (at least): Trey Hughes-fronted (I’d guess –penned, as well, but there are no writing credits), Ron Harrity-fronted, and two instrumentals. In a tough bit of engineering and track-order selection, Harpswell Sound succeed in keeping their cohesion. Most of this is thanks to a consistent and engaging guitar tone (here’s where most of their alt-country comparisons come from) and the rhythm section of Mike Dank on drums and John Takami on bass. Dank’s drumming is really top-drawer. It’s easier to show off on the drums than it is to stay out of sight, and Dank is a virtual phantom, employing brushes and a shy snare to let the dirgey numbers lurch. Then he just about blows up in "23 Days," a sprawling ninth track that lets Dank release all kinds of pent-up energy.

When Hughes is in charge (60 percent of the album), you get highlights like "Set the Anchor," which is an apt title for a song that so nicely eases you into an album, opening with a minute of instrumental contemplation before launching in at 1:30 to the song proper — a tactic the Sea and Cake used on One Bedroom in 2003.

With songs like this 5:33 opener and the 6:49 "Hang On," it’s easy to otherwise hear Hughes paralleling those post-rockers. The songs sprawl out and seem to evince tendrils, the verses don’t quite line up, there aren’t always proper choruses, and the music is paid attention to with a detail that goes beyond a simple backing for the words. But Harpswell Sound part with those post-rockers by getting all post-post on us and returning to musical roots and keeping their sound much more organic, with relatively simple guitar-guitar-bass-drum arrangements and earthy vocals that seem to grow up right out of the ground, often flowering into passionate, vocal-chord-stressing emissions. Plus, there’s often a pedal steel, sounding like the very vibration of the earth’s core.

The lyrics aren’t quite narrative, but give you an idea of love songs and landscapes: "I’ll set my anchor where you are/ Hell, I might as well say/ I’m in love with Molly Ray/ She made a pink mohair hat/ And the world could use more hats like that." Or, from "Hang On": "Walkin’, it’s not always a drag/ Some days it’s the only time we have/ And breathing can be harder than you think." The vocal style of pausing before the last syllable of a verse or line is engaging and you can’t beat the chorus here: "Oo, la la/ Oooo la/ Oo, la la/ Oooh la."

Harrity’s two songs lean more toward the indie-pop vein. "Funfair" is probably the album’s best, and certainly the single, announcing itself right from the kick as what will pass here for an upbeat rocker. Guitars are much more strummed than the single-string picking that is largely the band’s signature elsewhere. Harrity’s vocals are much less aggressive, more of an Elliot Smith to Hughes’s Jay Farrar.

Neither vocalist enunciates all their lines, but you catch earfuls of engaging phrases like, "I imagined you’d be on the ground/ With your arms all opened wide, round and round/ My arms are in the air/ You’ve opened my eyes/ Even after the funfair." Just enough to sing along at times.

It’s the instrumentals that really get me, though. They’re such a dying breed, leaving a band naked as they do. "Postcard" resounds in "Reel Around the Fountain," Johnny Marr guitars, ebbing and flowing in a poignant, sentimental, minor-chord way that’s more nourishing than melancholy. "Song Number One" (track number eight) features slide guitar from Chris Rohde in the fore, the other guitars playing a little holding pattern before the chorus of sorts, where they repeat a catchy, high-end hook. This is very thoughtful stuff, meaty and interesting for the music fan.

In "A Bit Less," Hughes says that "trying to please you is an exercise in futil-ity" (that vocal pause I was talking about). Let’s keep him thinking that way. If Harpswell Sound can do better, I’d love to hear it.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at spfeifle@phx.com.
Harpswell Sound’s Skylight, released on the German Skycap Records, is available at Bull Moose Music. - Portland Phoenix | News & Arts

Local music is often a treat to listen to because it can be so different from almost everything you hear on the radio. While commercial radio stations have to stay within the confines of the mainstream to appease the almighty dollar, local bands can actually spread their wings and play something that sounds unique. Sometimes it sounds like a monkey somehow got the keys to a recording studio, but other times you get good music that you won't hear elsewhere.
This week the Free Press reviews two short CDs by Maine bands that fall into the latter category: Portland-based Harpswell Sound and UMO-based Now Transmission.

Harpswell Sound - Port
If you put country music and folk rock in a blender, Harpswell Sound is the smooth frappe that you would pour out. The Portland band is definitely a unique one, with a breed of flowing music that they've been playing live for less than a year. Despite their lack of experience, they recently created a melodic five-song CD called "Port."

"Port" opens with the bass drum driven song "Too Many Times," which gives a proper introduction to the band's style, with its twangy southern guitar and steady rhythm. The songs on the CD all lack a certain complexity -- no multi-layered solos, no daring improvisation - but Harpswell Sound makes up for this with music that emphasizes musicianship. It sounds good, melodic and tight, rather than impressive.

The vocals are a bit unsteady, in a Dylan-esque way. While this approach has worked in folk music before, long steady tones would never hurt a song in place of wavering rustic ones.

But on this album the vocals take a backseat to the musicians' other skills, showcased in the instrumental "The Birds & The Fish." This expressive song floats along over the confines of its oppressive rhythm. The sounds of seagulls in the background conjure up images of the Maine coast, the location of the band's namesake.

"Port" sounds professional and practiced, which is more than you can say for many independent local debuts. Where a lot of bands mimic a bunch of musical conventions and fail, Harpswell Sound creates something unique, and does so admirably. - USM Free Press

I'm going to give it to you straight. If I keep receiving hand-delivered, unsigned artists on the same level as harpswell sound (though not every day or week, I have heard a small handful of standouts), I'm dragging myself and someone with stable credit to the local finiancial institution and we're gonna start us a damn fine little label.

It's officially the first day of spring, every window is open in my home & this sparkling 5-song EP, port, is doing a damn fine job of matching today's unblemished atmoshpere (you can even hear the front-porch rocking chair on 'settle down'). Lead vocalist Trey Hughes has a vocal approach that bridges a gap somewhere between a less-glum Simon Joyner and Joesph Arthur, had the latter chose an Americana route. Each of the five songs on port showcase a band that has far more than one or two craftful sounds in their collectiveness. Opener 'too many times', with it's driving drums & layered vocals, and instrumental closer 'the birds & the fish' (that absolutely must be heard to grasp this comparison) truly reveal a band that belongs together.

If there were bumps on the 5 road, 19 minute trip to Harpswell Sound, I must have lucked out and missed each one - I even drove 'em 3 times, and plan on going back.

Some bands just have 'it', harpswell sound got more than most. - sctas.com

Some bands toil in the local trenches for years before they make a name for themselves. Harpswell Sound are drawing attention before they’ve even played their first gig. Chalk it up to good pedigree, great songs, and good timing.

Drummer Mike Dank is a Portland scene fixture. Christ, the man was a Gargoyle, backing Bebe Buell in the day. He also kept time for Manny Verzosa, the Boston/Portland Lars Vegas, and did a stint with the boys in King Memphis, too. Bassist John Takami, too, has been around for ages — though it’s hard to pin down just which bands he’s been in. He was in the Shakes, for sure, and was doing a reggae thing for a while, but, rest assured, if you’ve been out on the town much at all, you’ll recognize him.

These two have combined with relative newcomers Trey Hughes, who does much of the songwriting for the band, and Ron Harrity, who, over the past two years, has ingratiated himself into the scene, playing in Black Tara, working over at the Studio, and designing the packaging for Rocktopus’s Something Fierce, for example. The result is a roots sound not alien to Portland, but with an infusion of indie/alt charm that makes the band just different enough from Portland’s more traditional roots and alt-country outfits.

"Trey and I kind of met socially," explains Harrity, "and I found out he was doing a lot of home recording. He just has tons and tons of home recordings . . . originally, I thought we’d be sort of like Fairport Convention, you know, folk-rock, like Pentangle."

From there, with Takami and Dank, they began incorporating some more contemporary indie sounds, and what they’ve wound up with is an Uncle Tupelo for 2003, a little less raucous, a little more thoughtful and melodic, quite a bit more spare.

I can say this with confidence because, though the band have yet to play their first live show (it’s coming this Saturday, with Seekonk, at SPACE), they’ve put together a great five-song EP, Port, that’s far more polished than your average meet-the-band demo/sampler.

"It was a long time in the making, actually," says Harrity. "It’s doing stuff at night, when we can, here and there. I think we started it in April, last year, and then the whole mastering and all that stuff took a little time." The recording was pretty much a stay-at-home project, though they tracked the drums in the Map Room, one of Portland’s newest galleries. But Steve Drown slapped a quality master job on the final package, and it winds up being a lo-fi final product not too different in sound from the original release of No Depression.

"Too Many Times" is particularly "Anodyne," featuring a countrified electric guitar (with some giddy-up), and an opening drum beat borrowed from the first track of Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2. There are multiple vocals, but you can’t miss Hughes’s trademark warble. You’re going to have to decide for yourself on whether the affect, amounting to pitch correction gone awry, is endearing or offputting — but, either way, it’s distinctive. It’s likely that a year of performing live will improve his voice greatly.

Not that it doesn’t suit his down-in-the-mouth lyrics of the opinion that "nothing turns out right, and things never change" and "trying to explain how days can do this to our hearts again and again." A like delivery infuses a similar melancholy into tracks sung by the Decembrists’ Colin Meloy or Soltero’s Tim Howard (though both are more polished than Hughes).

"Getting There," which opens with a halting piano and electric guitar, churning and chunking, shows Hughes leaning more toward early Trey Anastasio Phish vocals — they’re technically sound, but lack power. Still, the tune should make people fondly recall early Yo La Tengo discs with its early lugubrious pacing before it works up a head of steam. The plinky guitar lead before the build-up is particularly nice.

The songwriting contribution from Harrity is different still: "Tennessee’s Gone" is more in the Dylan "Like a Rolling Stone" vein, with a dominant folk/country guitar line. Harrity’s vocals are more delicate and high register, intoning in the chorus that "you’re always running, but you run out of time/ Tennessee’s gone girl, but I’m here to stay."

Harpswell Sound are here to stay, indeed, if they’ve got more tunes like the instrumental "The Birds & the Fish." With what sounds like a saw making seagull noises in the background, a strummed guitar provides counterpoint to a daintily picked electric line starting high, coming low, and finishing high again, the result being a great fluid jam.

There aren’t enough instrumentals being put to disc in the alt-country scene, and there can never be enough bands debuting with a solid effort such as Port. - Portland Phoenix | News & Arts


Let's Go Anyway (full length, June 2006)
Skylight (full length, December 2004)
Greetings from Area Code 207 Compilation, vol 5 (2004)
Port EP (5 songs, 2003)


Feeling a bit camera shy


Harpswell Sound formed in the fall of 2002 when guitarists Ron Harrity and Trey Hughes met and began swapping material they’d been recording. Mike Dank joined on drums soon after, followed by Jonathan Takami on bass. While everyone’s musical tastes varied widely, common influences included The Band, Neil Young, The Velvet Underground, Richard Buckner and Fairport Convention. Garage and indie rock, motown, reggae, and punk were broader genres we also drew upon in those formative months.

Our first release was an ep titled “Port”, which was basically recorded while the songs were being arranged. It’s clean, stark sound represented exactly where we were at the end of that winter — getting started as a band, arranging songs and finding common ground without the benefit of years spent hanging out, drinking beer and playing music twice a week in a basement.

The next album, Skylight, was recorded in March 2004 and contained a bunch of new songs we’d been playing for a while. There were some faster, more rocking songs, some poppy ones and some that were slow and stretched out. We were comfortable with the material, with each other and with what we were trying to say, which might have been equally, “do not forsake me, oh my darling”, and “kick out the jams, motherfucker”.

In 2005 Jonathan left the band, and longtime fan Kris Day became our new bass player. We had lots of new songs to record, and we eventually holed up in a nearby school’s orchestral room for a long weekend. We figured we’d be happy if the drums came out alright, and we could get four or five songs out of the session.

Much to our surprise, we were able to record the entire album that weekend; drums, vocals, guitars, and bass — all live. These were songs that were still somewhat new and fresh to us, and we were excited to be able to record them in such a direct and unlabored manner.

In March 2006 we were approached by Kramer, of Shimmy Disc Records, who offered to mix and master our new record. It will be titled "Let's go anyway" and will be released June 13th, 2006