A very wise truth I try to remember whenever I review a sophomore album: you have your whole life to write your first record, and just a couple of years to write your second. The righteous Los Angeles indie folk group Lord Huron gave me one of my favourite albums of all time with their genre jumping debut full-length Lonesome Dreams, and I was stoked as hell when I heard a second was coming this year. At last, the great Lord Huron emerges with Strange Trails, a very surprisingly fresh take on their very brilliant and unique sound.
A word of warning for fans of Lonesome Dreams: Strange Trails is not the same. While it shares similarities with the first, the second is a different beast altogether. The one major thing the albums have in common is that fact that they are both loose concept albums. All of the songs are tied together by one individual idea on each individual record. Therefore, Strange Trails must be listened to as an entirely new concept unrelated to that of Lonesome Dreams — much like watching two unrelated films by the same director. The trick I used to unlock the true awesomeness of this new album was to assume the band determined the musical style of Lonesome Dreams at the same time they chose the concept, and did likewise for this new one.
While Lonesome Dreams featured a predominately indie folk sound (filtered and augmented by Lord Huron’s distinctly haunting style), with individual songs incorporating elements from other genres (such as big country, rock-a-billy, folk, and even world music), Strange Trails uses a strong rock-a-billy vibe as its foundation. This sound had previously been featured in Lonesome Dreams‘ second track, “Time To Run.” Although starkly different from the first album’s style, this new one is still very much Lord Huron. It is very important that the band’s fans identify that haunting, reverb-soaked filter as the band’s trademark sound, rather than the style they’ve chosen to run through it.
The epic coolness of Strange Trails is highlighted with a really wicked cover designed to look like an old 78 RPM record album. Much like with the last album, the theme of the record is introduced in the first track, “Love Like Ghosts.” A really great melody is sung, with exceptional harmony and slapback delay over simple background music throughout the song’s first minute. The tune graduates into a great big and somehow eerie western romp. When the song finally breaks, it’s something quite magnificent. Band leader Ben Schneider’s voice is as utterly fantastic as it always has been, belting out emotionally charged lines like “baby, in my eyes you could do no wrong.” I’m especially pleased to hear the band’s rhythm section in fine form — Lord Huron’s is a rhythm section I would classify as BEST.
I’m a little bewildered as to why there are pre-gap stops between the tracks when many of the tracks are designed to flow from one to the other in the fashion of most concept albums and, indeed, the band’s first album. It detracts a little from the listening experience. [I have since been made aware that my CD was from a bad batch and that the gaps are most certainly the result of error. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if your copy has gaps! I Am Sound Records is working hard to make this right! – Ed.] Moving on, “Until the Night Turns,” the record’s second track, is a really fun and upbeat rock-a-billy tune in the mold of “Time To Run.” A very neat and eclectic cowboy adventure tune follows with “Dead Man’s Hand.” Nods to pulp westerns abound.
Strange Trails is perhaps not as immediate as Lonesome Dreams. I say this only because at this point during the latter’s listening experience, I’d had three new favourite songs. While the first three of Strange Trails are really awesome, the first tune on this new record that I can say I really love is its fourth. “Hurricane (Johnnie’s Theme)” is a really pretty and punchy little tune that oozes the late 1950’s. The song’s refrain is really cute and old-fashioned — on its surface, a more innocent type of love song that seems to be more about companionship and less about conquest. Brilliant harmonies and energy as usual.
“La Belle Fleur Sauvage” plays out like an old Waylon Jennings tune and it brings goosebumps as it does. This tune is pure gold and contains more hooks than a bloody tackle box. With songs like this one, Lord Huron have grasped perfectly the sense of adventure required to sell the pulp western concept. “Fool For Love” is another standout for me. It’s an entertaining story, as one dude vies to win the love of a woman from a much bigger one, essentially getting his ass kicked, believing there was no other choice in the matter. Schneider’s range is really tested on this one and passes with flying colours. “The World Ender” presents a grim, old west ballad with authentic, nearly monotone verses and a huge spaghetti western mid-section.
My current favourite on the record is “Meet Me in the Woods.” Beginning with a brilliantly mysterious and haunting introduction, the tune opens up into a beautifully vibrant ballad that elaborates on the motif introduced in “Love Like Ghosts.” I have to continually praise Schneider’s vocals. The smooth timbre of, and the sheer emotion in, his voice is constantly stunning. His is a voice that shames 90% of his peers many times over. And again, the G.D. rhythm section simply owns.
Perhaps the most impressive song on the album (although “Meet Me” is still my favourite), “The Yawning Grave” is a gorgeous ballad with exceptional melodies. The arrangement is flawless and heinously engaging. It leads right into (or would if the pre-gap stops didn’t fudge everything [Again, email@example.com – Ed.]) another rock solid tune called “Frozen Pines.” Lord Huron’s striking melodies are equally matched by their instrumental hooks. The song’s coda, with its mesmerising vocal unison and gripping delivery, is ample proof of this, bringing the song to a pleasing finish.
“Cursed” is a very wonderful thing with tons going on in it. The lyrics, especially, are of note, seemingly comparing a nihilistic unrequited love to addiction or disease. It’s only flaw is that it is placed in the midst of other astounding tunes that overshadow it. The next song, for instance: I simply adore “Way Out There.” It begins with a heavily effected violin that is quite eerie and elegantly beautiful. The song’s coursing arrangement swells and ebbs until we are left with just faint percussion, acoustic guitar, and that eerie violin hook. Finally, even that fades into an epic string arrangement.
In stark contrast to the grim sounding “Way Out There,” “Louisa” offers up a more uplifting sound, with verses that are half “The Man Who Lives Forever” and half “In The Wind” (from Lonesome Dreams), and a “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” hook. The album ends with “The Night We Met,” which slows down the album’s motif for a wistful and bittersweet ending that builds sensationally before ending on a fairly quiet note. The chorus (“I had all and then most of you, some and now none of you”) is brilliant and quite moving, making “The Night We Met” a perfect coda for a wonderful and deep record full of love, despair, life, regret, and oblivion. What it lacks in stylistic diversity (when compared to Lonesome Dreams), Strange Trails more than makes up for in lyrical depth — on many occasions dwarfing the magnitude of the last record in said field.
Where Lonesome Dreams was a pleasant and upbeat romp, with a cast of one, that summoned images of mountains, lakes, and wooded expanses, Strange Trails seems much smaller in scope, presenting grittier western-style ballads with a somewhat larger cast of characters. There’s a crazy paradox, for the one with the most isolated feel has the grander vision, and the one with the most going on is strangely cloistered. In my opinion, this feeling doesn’t detract from the quality of the album, rather, it adds to the intrigue of the band. While I would have loved a more diverse record, I find it much more interesting that the band chose to switch it up and apply their sound to something different. I love it more with every listen.
All said, Strange Trails is a thrilling new and fresh adventure for Lord Huron fans, and a bold, skilled, and ultimately successful attempt to take the styles of eras past and incorporate them into a very cohesive and delightfully modern package. As stated in the opening, you very often try so hard to get that first album made, and then have to face the music when you can’t live up to it in the time between records. With Strange Trails, Lord Huron doesn’t seem bothered by this and have instead crafted an entirely different entity separate from the first. The best thing is, now that this has been done and released, there are no real expectations or limitations for the third chapter and the band can proceed truly free. Marvelous!
RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.