There’s a telling line from the Coen Brothers’ latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, where our titular folksinger hero Llewyn, after finishing the traditional Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, says “if it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song”.
Indeed, as traditional rock ‘n’ roll loses its position as pop music’s king to hip hop, the genre seems to be receding into memory as something that’s always been. It is becoming, in essence, a type of folk music, sung by the average, loved by the blue collar, and handed down from Boomer to Millennial. Rock, for all its emphasis on innovation and breakthrough, is often just as cyclical and nostalgic as any Folkaways record collection. After all, one person’s Shortening Bread is another’s Sweet Home Alabama; it’s just a matter of perspective.
The Hosts’ debut album Softly, Softly, is a type of folk made for people to enjoy. It is not particularly innovative, and the songwriting respectfully holds to the tradition of country-western, early rock ‘n’ roll and doo wop. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Rock artists are mining the ’50s/early ’60s sound with new technology and modern perspective like their forbears. In this effort The Hosts succeed admirably.
So, what about the songs? It’s fitting this album is being released during Valentine’s week, because nothing could be more appropriate. The tracks are custom-made for slow dancing, the kind chaste young kids engaged in at prom long ago. It’s not that there isn’t sensuality to the music; it’s there, but the main mood is one of romance, not mere lust. You don’t objectify anyone to these songs, you run through traffic to declare your love to them in a packed stadium.
Singer Tom Hogg is a talented performer with a pure, crisp voice, clear falsetto and just enough roughness to keep it interesting. Most impressive is his complete conviction in every line he sings; the mark of a true star. As Hogg leads us through these songs, the other elements help create the mood. James Shipley’s guitar playing is tight, Keyboardist Jim Fisher lends fitting aural textures, David Glover’s bass is both organic and rich, and Adam Croft’s drumming enthralls. They are a tight band with spot on playing, and one imagines they translate well in a live setting.
The album begins with September Song, one of many Roy Orbison-inspired ditties that also brings to mind early Beatles (who were also, non-coincidentally, inspired by Roy). The lyrics are direct and in first person, lots of “you”s and “I”s. “I was waiting for you to close your eyes/ so I could say goodbye/ I was waiting for you to change your mind/ so I could say goodbye.”
Would You Be Blue is, to make up a phrase, non-un-listenable, a Dion And The Belmonts number filtered through the sound production of Brian Eno. The lush With You fills with stuttering guitar lines and marching drums, while Give Your Love To Her, in the vein of the classic She Loves You, implores the listener to “listen to what she’s got to say/ go kiss her tonight,” and you almost believe you should.
Wake Up is the most stylistically modern song, sounding like an outtake out of The Killers’ discography, combined with Lou Reed and David Bowie. The One, an epic Save The Last Dance track, shows Hogg doing his best Drifters impression. The album is stuffed with references and homages to sounds past. You can hear the shadow of Roy Orbison ripple throughout the vinyl, Beach Boys melodies abound and Wall of Sound-styled orchestral parts sail through the speakers. The Chordettes‘ Mr Sandman is alluded to at the intro of In Dreams, and then the jangly guitar and sleepy strings appear.
All this creates a certain mood of comfort. It’s well deserved. In a world where the economy seems as stable as a stumbling drunk on an old sidewalk and life is too fast to make any real sense, playing music that dares to echo something better and more pure is courageous. By refuting the cynical, suspicious and dangerous culture we inhabit with music that dares to make you feel, well, happy, The Hosts really are a cut above, and have released a most promising debut album. Give them a chance. Because sometimes people really do fall in love, and happy endings are around the corner. All you have to do is believe.