Holopaw - "The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion" (Oh Glory, Oh Wilderness)
John Orth’s Holopaw got an auspicious start early on, when a connection with Isaac Brock (via Ugly Casanova) brought the Florida songwriter to Sub Pop’s attention. The first two albums, a self-titled in 2003 and Quit +/or Fight in 2005, got a big indie push that seemed out of proportion with their wispy, intensely inward-looking aura. The debut, particularly, was a delicate thing, a kind of mirage in still water that might disappear in the slightest breeze. Even the relatively dense “Cinders” with its woozy brass accompaniment, sounded like the daydreams inside of one very eccentric head; sparer cuts fluttered weightlessly, timelessly on Orth’s distinctively tremulous voice. Now, four years after the second album, untethered to Sub Pop and with an almost entirely new band, Orth is making the idiosyncratic, self-determined music that he always seemed destined for – which, oddly enough, is denser, more collaborative and more pop than either of his previous albums.
Consider, for instance, the quasi title cut, “Oh Glory,” bursting into being in a full-marching band blast, cutting to whispered nothings, then gathering strength in lush, carefully orchestrated crescendos. Not much is left of Orth’s country underpinnings, which earlier grounded his odd, bubble-pipe vibrato in old-time tradition. Instead, he has turned toward the swelling pop of certain Scandinavians (Loney Dear, Choir of Young Believers), building airy, ornate choruses out of the most buoyant of materials. There are quiet moments – just Orth’s delicate voice and guitar picking – but almost always these lead to louder, more triumphant resolution, thickened with strings, vocal harmonies, brass and emphatic percussion. “The Art Teacher and the Little Stallion” starts with a ballad’s fluidity, twists of violin, plinks of electric keyboard, curving and twining over the melody, yet it turns rhythmically, definitively rock, before it’s end. “P-A-L-O-M-I-N-E” transforms even more dramatically, moving from a barely there emotional tremble into group-shouted enthusiasm – the first Holopaw song, I believe, to include “hey! hey! hey!”s.
Lyrically, Orth is elliptical, serene, faintly mystic as he traces certain themes (“It was only a pin prick,” “Cherry glow”) and characters (“Little Stallion,” “Matador”) through multiple songs. Connections are too oblique to make a song cycle or concept album out of these songs. Still, you get a sense that certain images and ideas buzzed around Orth as he wrote this album and he was not always finished with an idea just because he’d completed another song. There is also a strong undercurrent of ... (ahem) eroticism in the album, as brief, telling observations of young men’s bodies coexist with shifting natural imagery. The rush of images, the mystic treatment of physical attraction, turns nearly Whitman-esque in cuts like “Boys on Motorbikes” (“the stillness between the shoulder blades”), closer “The Conductor and the Hobbyist” and particularly “Black Lacquered Shame,” one of the album’s most engaging tracks, despite the fact that it seems to deal with outdoor assignations.
Oh Glory, Oh Wilderness pulls in two very interesting ways. The more accessible, more exciting arrangements make it essentially a pop record. Its appeal is immediate, rather than slow burning, and you can see it gaining fans who are less transfixed by eccentricity, more interested in tightly constructed songs. Yet at the same time, the words and images in these songs are deeply personal and self-revealing in a way that, I think, the first two albums were not. Orth has found a way to make himself more accessible and more himself at the same time with this third album … a neat trick worth repeating.