Monday, December 22, 2008

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2008: Number 9

There's been quite a bit of conceputality around this year, but Ottawa's The Acorn managed to better the field. Glory Hope Mountain is a suite of songs inspired by leader Rolf Klausener's mother Gloria Esperanza Montoya (a loose translation of which forms the title), who he interviewed for a total of eight hours about her troubled upbringing in Honduras, the native music of which he researched as part of the songwriting process, and subsequent escape to Canada. That the album doesn't come off as worthy at all, and that you don't necessarily need to know this for its enjoyment, is testament to Klausener and his band's skill at avoiding straight narrative arcs in favour of an arrangement that is fairly impressionistic without ever losing the thread, allegory through experience rather than biography. Why should we care, you may ask? Because it's a touching story related excellently.

Hold Your Breath demonstrates all this. It refers to Montoya's mother's death during childbirth ("no-one thought you'd make it past the morning") but not in a maudlin fashion largely because of Klausener's poetic touches, references to "climbing constellations move in a melody of gravitation" one of a number of beautifully weighted allusions to landscape and the great outdoors. The music similarly peaks, from unaccompanied intro to delicate guitar and piano to dual offbeat martial percussion, a panoramic adventure in itself. Then Flood Part 1 starts with township rhythmic handclapping and single hit drumming before launching into a flurry of clashing percussion followed by guitar picking that sounds like Sam Beam gone hi-life over gang backing vocals and West African rhythms, far more matter of fact influence than hipster appropriation. It's this kind of disparity between hope and reality that drives the album's storyline as such. Crooked Legs, in which Montoya runs away from home and abusive father, runs on a constantly urgent percussive rhythm decorated with brass and led by Klausener's appealling vocal looking forward to freedom, but it's echoed by Oh Napoleon, the most Sufjan-esque thing here with its banjo and yearning violin which is named after and written from the perspective of Montoya's younger brother hoping for his own escape and fearing for what happens next ("bite my tongue and taste your blood, never thought that I could bite hard enough") Low Gravity takes off in a similar way to Crooked Legs, with carnival atmosphere and drunken cello lurking throughout behind the mass percussion, but there's something rueful about it too, perhaps backed up as Montoya's own voice briefly turns up at the start and end of Sister Margaret, a mournful instrumental mostly featuring piano and lap steel. Antenna then takes up like Wilco circa Summerteeth with its radio static intro, alt-country overtones and crackly solo. The Acorn really put the tin lid on it with the last two tracks, though, Flood Part 2 sounding a little like Bella Union labelmates Fleet Foxes, weary but unbowed in the face of hardship before the deceptively simple closer Lullaby (Mountain), a gorgeous female vocalled invocation of the life cycle's regrets. As ambitious story arcs go, Glory Hope Mountain is about as complete and adventurous without ever nearly succumbing to doggrel as you'll ever hear.

Crooked Legs

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