Confessions first: I live with two of the members of House on a Hill and played a little organ on their new record. I mention this by way of apology, because ordinarily I would disqualify myself from writing about any band I’m that close to. However, Ladyslipper is not an ordinary record, and House on a Hill is not an ordinary band.
Here you have, in still-fledgling form, one of the most interesting and cohesive three-piece Seattle bands to come down the pike this decade. The central figure is Sara Kermanshahi, a young woman of mixed Iranian and Pakistani descent who has created a guitar style that sounds a bit like Elliot Smith in a Moroccan trance, and a vocal style that defies any easy description. She croons, murmurs, threatens and seduces the listener with a whirlwind force of personality and a mysterious sorrow that will doubtless soon catapult her into the ranks of the great indie rock chanteuses.
The low end is provided by her longtime beau Cedar Apfell, an inventive player who counterpoints Kermanshahi’s filigrees with an aggressively jaunty bass style that travels all over the scale without ever leaving the pocket. Apfell has his own compositions, and the two trade lyrics in an uneasy alliance that gives HoaH the same lovelorn appeal as Quasi, Mates of State, or (dare I say) Fleetwood Mac.
Holding it all down is Carlos Moncada, a local boy whose drumming is distinguished primarily by its facile, breezy execution. He may not techincally have come out of the womb drumming, but he does handle drumsticks like an ancient Japanese handles the chopsticks: it’s second nature. He flows like a jazz drummer raised on Sabbath, which I guess he kind of is.
OK, so all three musicians are great players. So are all three members of Rush. It means nothing. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case the recording, and Ladyslipper delivers. The band’s first studio album is graceful, organic, eerie, and seamless. Rather than just present the songs, the band has stretched its collective imagination to create a dynamic soundcape that alternately soothes and challenges. The songs bleed into one another, fade to black and back, or drop out into pools of echoey sound from which they are reborn as something strange, maybe twisted, but undeniably new. In their reflective moods, they recall the lazy intricacies of Polvo or The For Carnation, but when they pour on the gleeful thunder, House on a Hill could be riding shotgun with PJ Harvey or Unwound.
New is, in fact, the operative word. In an American bandscape choking on a slew of genre cliche-slingers and wannabe hitmakers, groups like House on a Hill are the ones who deserve your time and your concert-going dollar. They are not cheap, they are not simple, they do not compromise, and for the record, I was into them before you were. – (7/10)