It only takes a couple of bars of the opening track of Houndmouth‘s debut album to understand why they’ve been touring with Rough Trade labelmates Alabama Shakes recently. Often erroneously compared to Mumford And Sons (there’s no twanging of banjo strings here), the four-piece from Indiana are more rootsy Americana than watered down bluegrass. Those who disapprove of impressive facial hair teamed with baseball caps may not be impressed, but this is a most assured debut album.
Of course ‘authentic’ folk-rock has suffered a bit of a backlash in recent times (mainly thanks to the almost ubiquitous presence of The Lumineers‘ Ho Hey) so it may not be the best time for Houndmouth, with their duelling male/female vocals, to launch themselves on the public consciousness. Yet unlike the myriad ‘nu-folk’ bands out there, there’s a pleasing grittiness to From The Hills Below The City which makes Houndmouth a lot less annoyingly generic than many of their competitors.
Like the aforementioned Alabama Shakes (and The Black Keys before them), there are absolutely no gimmicks and nothing flashy about Houndmouth. They simply make straight-up blues-rock songs and do so very well indeed. It’s superbly played, with a pleasing rawness undercutting the smooth production, and the vocals of Matt Myers and Katie Toupin blend together and harmonise beautifully. Admittedly, they do slip into clichés occassionally (especially lyrically), and there’s nothing even vaguely original to be found on the album, but it is for the most part a hugely enjoyable listen.
The most obvious influence on Houndmouth is The Band – there are several tracks on this album that you could easily picture Robbie Robertson and co. adopting. One of the standout tracks, Penitentiary, even sounds almost exactly like The Weight, and you could imagine Levon Helm singing its tale of a down-on-his-luck criminal being transported to the titular prison. The opening track On The Road sets the atmosphere perfectly, the song’s characters setting off on a road trip to gain some new identities (“I’m going down where nobody knows me,” as the chorus puts it).
On The Road also demonstrates the chemistry between Myers and Toupin, who swap verses on the bridge with such gusto it’s impossible not to be swept away by it all. It’s even (almost) possible to ignore the fact that they’re calling each other “sugar mama” and “boy in blue”. Later on, Toupin takes on lead vocals on one of the best tracks on the album Casino (Bad Things), her smoky drawl playing well against Myers’ bluesy guitar riffs. Like much of the first half of the album, it’s an uplifting, often exhilarating anthem and is repeated later on with the more restrained Houston Train.
Sometimes though, the lyrical cliches become hard to ignore. There’s talk of “coming home”, “shining a light” and references to ‘gypsy trains’, and the more you listen to the album, the more grating the earnestness becomes. Because if there’s a fault with Houndmouth, it’s probably down to a lack of imagination – they seem to be so in thrall to their influences that they sometimes forget to let their own personality shine through.
Yet despite its flaws, this is still an impressively confident debut from a band that sound far older than their years. They probably haven’t recorded their breakthrough single just yet, but Houndmouth already sound destined for arenas and stadiums.