The Hanging Stars – Hollow Heart: Album Review

Psych-country vibes abound here, a 4th platter of plenty from this rootsy London quintet, The Hanging Stars, purveyors of a cosmic bliss.

Release date: 25th March 2022

Label: Loose

Format: CD / vinyl

If Hanging Stars have to remain one of the nation’s better-kept secrets after this release, then there is clearly no justice. It’s true, though; Country remains very much on the end of ten-foot bargepoles for still so many listeners, especially if homegrown, as the astonishing poor acclaim offered to the Alan Tyler’s wonderful Rockingbirds and, thus far, Dean Owens seems to demonstrate. For this is the issue, however much you might tart it up as country-rock or UK-Americana, noses seem to get looked down upon our own produce. And so unfairly, when that product is, like this, so much more than the re-fried beans of Nashville (copy)cats, being a compelling blend of influences and origins. Hank never did it quite like this.

Over their earlier three releases, this London based band have steadily been forging an identifiable sound, lodestones being the cosmic American musics brought to bear by Gram Parsons’ Flying Burrito Brothers and the melodic jangle of Alex Chilton’s Big Star, onto which they have imprinted some London skies for local colour. Here there are more formal nods to the loose ambience of peak period Grateful Dead and, oddly, to Pink Floyd: some of the steel playing being especially Gilmouresque in style. However, those references are neatly absorbed into a cohesive whole. This is a band clearly comfortable playing these songs and bedded well into them, the ten songs more completely a set than those previous outings allowed.

The feel of Floyd and the Dead is writ most large in Ava, the opening track, as it starts off with moody, long and drawn out bendy drones of electric and steel guitar, before bouncing into a melody that has never more Dark Star peals of rippling Garcia-like guitar. There is a relaxed swagger as the vocals come in, with plenty of room to allow the integral instrumentation to slot in alongside. The drums offer an insistent rolling canter, the harmonies swooping between the chiming guitars, the whole a confident dance. Black Light Night then wastes no time in reprising that same chunky guitar tone, and before you know it, your head just can’t stop bobbing, an infectious chorus weaving elegantly to the front. As well as proving that they aren’t reliant solely on the steel.

A folkier tone enters for the reflective Weep and Whisper, finger-picked guitars offer more of the Garcia-Gilmour hybrid. Joe Harvey-Whyte’s steel on this one is back in the fray, and is especially affecting and effective, the coda stretching out lithely. A touch of Stonesy strut inhabits Radio On, as do flickers of a more blissed-out Jonathan Richman in his same-named song. The keyboards here of Sean Ralla, elsewhere also on guitar, bridge the diffuse aspects of this relaxed whimsy, with Paulie Cobra’s drumming again an insistent forward pushing pulse. Probably also the time to mention the all important role of frontman and songwriter, Richard Olson, whose light voice glides on the slipstream produced by his cohorts, as well as providing much of the guitar heft as well. (Those who recognise the name may recall he was part of the fondly remembered Eighteenth Day of May, who burnt a brief candle of Fairporty folk-rock back in 2006, with their sole, eponymous debut recording, never to be followed.) The nimble bass of Sam German rounds out the line-up.

The Ballad Of Whatever May Be starts in a kaleidoscope of cascading swirls, a gruffer vocal offset by cowboy angel harmonies, as the guitars, together and separately, flail in slo-mo, like aromatic smoke-streams. That same sense of big ones rolled around a campfire leeches over into Hollow Eyes, Hollow Heart, a Byrdsy lament that wouldn’t sound amiss on the soundtrack of Easy Rider. An eastern mood permeates the impeccable jangle, the two-time signatures perfectly complementary to each other. (So you wanna be?) You’re So Free is a graceful two chord sway, again the guitars adding a lustre of sci-fi ambience, the b.v.s almost trance-like.

A more down-home prairie campfire mood inhabits the simple joy of Rainbows in Windows, some slightly disturbing spoken sotto voces unsettling the balance before it, too, penetrates the time-space continuum. That wyrdness is then textured by the 4/4 straightforward pure pop of I Don’t Want To Feel So Bad, not for the first time evoking Teenage Fanclub, or, possibly more pertinently, Cosmic Rough Riders, the organ an unexpected pleasure towards the end. Red Autumn Leaf closes the record, and is everything a closer should be, winding down the varied tempos and textures heard before, in a gentle lament for times past, which draws together this delectable potpourri of retro-hued psychedelic country-folk into a fitting finale.

The Hanging Stars have really concentrated their MO for this disc, losing the need to add in surprises or any supporting cast, the template sufficient to set out their wares, unashamed and unabashed. This is what you get. And, you know, you need little more on this rare sunny March day.

Here’s Black Light Star, the second single from the set:

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