Turns out that video with Jon Hamm from Mad Men driving a young, runaway blue Yeti hitchhiker is a music video by longtime DIY duo Herman Dune (previously Herman Düne, but, hey, people tend to raise eyebrows at extraneous umlauts). Who knew? The track itself (Tell Me Something I Don’t Know), though, stands just fine on its own without the help of Hamm, or its impossibly whimsical wayward traveller.
That song is all quiet introspectiveness and slow-building sound-waves, feeling a bit like U2‘s Where The Streets Have No Name. “You’re a hero, and you’re off the hook,” Dune sings. “I read you like a poem or a holy book.” It’s an auspicious, if misleading, beginning for Herman Dune’s new album, Strange Moosic – their twelfth or so if you count tape and 7″ only releases distributed through bedroom labels and word of mouth.
From there, we follow semi-anonymous band members David-Ivar Herman Dune (guitar, vocals, songwriting, sounding like a calmed-down John Darnielle) and Néman Herman Dune (aka Cosmic Néman, drums) through an acoustic guitar-driven set with unexpected flourishes. Throughout, Rachel Blumberg and Sean Flinn contribute vocals, and a cast of Oregon friends shows up to round out each track, creating a series of impressively well-developed self-contained moments.
Strange Moosic (a misleading name for such a heartfelt album) was produced by Adam Selzer in Portland, Oregon, that American hotbed of all things hipster. But the Pacific Northwest has also given us its share of non-ironic gems, and like California below it, Portland has its own sound, the location and all it represents making its way into the music. Strange Moosic is no exception: it’s at once sparse and lush, carefully crafted and loosely realised.
This is the first time that Herman Dune (prolific touring band, spending years on the road at a time) have recorded an album that hadn’t already been extensively tested on the road. Here we have what the band deemed the best 12 of 20 possible tracks, and based on their quality, a collection of the castoffs would be welcome. Because of this, the album doesn’t play out like a set list; instead, it’s a collection of individual tunes that cohere into something bigger. An album of possible singles, really.
The churning, sunny pop of Be A Doll And Take My Heart is impossibly infectious, as is its rose-coloured sentiment. “We will ride around together, and never apart,” Dune sings. “Be a doll and take my heart.” Never mind that it sounds almost exactly like Tom Petty‘s Learning To Fly. Lay Your Head On My Chest is soul music at its best, feeling hopeful and bittersweet at once. Dune’s lyrics are quizzical and grounded in some mythical reality, much like John Darnielle’s. “Then I felt silence and it was silly,” he sings. “I guess it must be running in my family.” Or on Monument Park: “You got a sweet tooth, and an evil eye. You want a piece of the cake or a slice of the pie.”
All told, Strange Moosic is a strange experience indeed. The music jives just the way a nearly lifelong partnership like David-Ivar’s and Néman’s should. Some moments are crushingly sweet and morose (Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, The Rock, In The Long Long Run) and others are bounding and energetic (Monument Park, Be A Doll And Take My Heart). It’s all grounded in David-Ivar’s unique take on the world, his lyrics bending the English language in the same way Bob Dylan did, if a bit more nonsensically.
Given that they can attract a star like Jon Hamm, Herman Dune have obviously come a long way since their tape-only releases earlier this century. Strange Moosic could just be the breakout album they need. If not, the folks who have given them cult status can still say they know something everyone else is missing out on.