It has been over seven years since HAL released their self-titled debut, a remarkable effort released on Rough Trade that featured highly accessible reminiscing of folk and West Coast pop. While their new album abandons the coast in favor of more perky folk and ambitious string-laden rockers, it in no way represents a stylistic alteration or dip in quality. Most trademarks of HAL’s sound – like Dave Allen’s piercingly theatric falsetto, string work that shifts cohesively between the somber and bombast, and soaring melodies – return on their sophomore release, The Time the Hour. It’s a welcome return for the Allen brothers, who delivered despite taking their time crafting this pleasing album.
Like the debut, the immediate standouts are also the most emotional and string-heavy on the album. “The Time the Hour” and “Rocking Chair” also feature beautiful harmonizing, one of the most prominent aspects that made their debut so memorable. The delivery on “Rocking Chair” is especially reminiscent of Neil Young; a series of dramatic strings help solidify a folksy backbone that reaches its peak when Allen launches into an extended croon at the strings’ apex, and his nasally dose of melancholy has a strong likeness to Young. The album’s central theme – the passing of time – is eloquently displayed on both these efforts despite different stylistic backbones, each one with somber yet explosive build-ups. “Please say that you’ll wake me up, I’ve been sleeping in a dream,” Allen sings of the rocking chair years, where the fear of fate reigns supreme. “Been workin’ through the nightmares, planting all my fears.”
“The Time the Hour” is more in line with the orchestral developments of Owen Pallett or Sufjan Stevens. Both this and “Rocking Chair” tread on the more structurally ambitious side, like “Fools by Your Side” and “Satisfied” on the debut. “Rocking Chair” grows from creeping gothic Southern-inspired folk to a gentle string-led Victorian dance, romantic and wistful to heart’s content. “The Time the Hour” is just as sweeping and captivating, headlined by the rousing mid-point climax. The ambitious structural choices make these tracks some of the best, purely because HAL produces their best work when duration and radio appeal are not factors. These are tracks that show the band stretching their legs and getting comfortable with their sound.
The mixing on the album is polished and clean, though occasionally the heavy emphasis on bass drowns out more memorable components of a song. The balance is more presentable on “Magnificent”, where fuzzy bass and playful keys collide for a nice hook – “the day has come” – propelled by a wonderful vocal push and cathedral bells. HAL had several accessible radio-friendly hits kick their debut off, like “Play the Hits” and “What a Lovely Dance”, and The Time the Hour follows a similarly safe path. “Magnificent” and the bouncy “Going to the City” exemplify this, though the album’s second track – “Be With You” – does much more; it fuses an anthemic, immediately likeable verse-chorus format into the band’s more creative ventures. The finale to the track is a ripping tour-de-force that finds a sharply melodic guitar solo meld over a brilliantly performed percussive build-up. “Be With You” is HAL doing what they do best.
“Going to the City” is pleasant enough with its old-timey whistles and harmonica, though by the second time a slightly underwhelming burst of acoustics lead the chorus it becomes grating. More expansion on the brassy bridge at the mid-point would have been interesting, but they opt for simple harmonizing instead, likely to keep with the song’s loose and accessible feel. The initial chirping on “Down in the Valley” serves as a similar annoyance; the ah-ah-ah-ing becomes repetitive and straining to a point. It redeems itself with a suave chorus that pays a slight homage to rockabilly with its confident thrust of guitars. The moog addition is a nice touch, as it is throughout the album. With its rapid tempo shifts and initial melodic twists, the conclusion of “Down in the Valley” is slightly more ambitious than “Going to the City”, which simply doesn’t have the replay value of most efforts on The Time the Hour.
Other tracks on the album are pleasant and light, reaching emotive highs like the synth/piano-pop hybrid “Hannah” and “That’s That”, a crisp rocker that flows into a striking chorus with trippy psych-pop vocal touches. “Why Do You Come Here” is a lighthearted folk-pop effort you’d expect on a Magic Numbers album; it’s nothing mesmerizing, but pleasant nonetheless. That’s about as dull as you’ll get on The Time the Hour, a worthwhile follow-up to a debut that is difficult for any artist to surpass. HAL does an admirable job in following it up.
MP3: HAL – Rocking Chair