Nick Bollinger assesses a debut that encompasses folk and feedback from American quartet Heron Oblivion.
The old two guitars, bass and drums band. How long has it been since anyone thought of anything new to do with that classic configuration? Well here’s the debut of a group from the American west coast with precisely that line-up. But though the territory may be familiar, the way they explore it is so curious and thorough, their discoveries so particular, that listening to them can make me wonder whether I’ve been here before at all.
While Heron Oblivion is a relatively new band, the four members all have long and intertwined histories. Guitarist Noel Harmonson and bass player Ethan Miller both played for a decade in explosive Santa Cruz band Comets On Fire; second guitarist Charlie Saufley had been with San Francisco psych rockers Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound. But the new group comes together around vocalist Meg Baird, who has released a couple of solo albums but is probably best known for her role in dark-folk big band Espers. Baird is also the drummer in Heron Oblivion; a pounding primitive in the Maureen Tucker mode. And that’s not where the Velvet Underground comparisons end. The Velvets are an obvious reference point for Heron Oblivion’s modal guitar sound as well. But the Velvets never had anyone who can sing like Meg Baird. And the high pure clarity of her singing in a song like ‘Oriar’, combined with its old English-style melody, makes me think of some previously unimagined fusion of the Velvet Underground and Fairport Convention. And if it’s Fairport and Velvets in a track like that one, they might be channelling Neil Young and Crazy Horse in a slow smouldering track like ‘Your Hollows’.
So if it’s all been done before, what is it that makes Heron Oblivion special? For one thing, there’s that contrast between the turbulent textures of the twin guitars and that exquisite voice, that seems to float impossibly high above it all, somewhere in the ether. But there is also the way this quartet approaches their material. For Heron Oblivion, a song is more than just a neat stack of verses and choruses. It’s a space to roam in, exploring the corners and angles. And they make that into an adventure. The guitars circle around Baird’s voice there snapping off bits of the melody and spitting them out in distorted squally bursts.
Heron Oblivion’s album isn’t perfect. The songs are good rather than great and the rhythms sometimes cross the line from sombre to sluggish. But there’s a lot I like about it too; the way the guitars aren’t locked down but are free to range around the song, Meg Baird’s extraordinary ethereal voice, and the sheer joy of a bunch of musicians who are making it interesting for themselves, and for us as well.
Songs Featured: Beneath Fields, Oriar, Sudden Lament, Rama, Seventeen Landscapes, Your Hollows.
Heron Oblivion is available on Sub Pop Records.