The Underrated Work of Genius - Honeychurch Makes Me Feel Better

A few years ago, a band that about 1000 people know about recorded an album that is criminally beautiful. I say criminally because it is a tremendous effort and I may be one of a Bowery's worth of people who's ever heard it from start to finish. It is, on top of being on my top ten list of records from 2004, one of the simplest, devastating country revival records ever made. I don't mean Hank 3 or Jugband country or any of that CMT nonsense, I mean sun-drenched turn of the 70s country that came and went, and left behind some beautiful records. Larissa Hopwood, one half of the voices heard of Honeychurch and one of the most important people in my musical education, has been championing the songs of Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons and their influence is key to the awesome vocal harmonies and heart-melting songwriting. Shilough Hopwood, principle vocalist and rhythm guitar player takes the listener on a fantastic tour of past and future indie music and country ballads and does a much more elegant job of it than Wilco, M. Ward or Mason Jennings combined (Of course it helps to have a female voice and Tim Kratz' guitar player). The songs are fully realized and just become prettier with every new listen.

Honeychurch Makes Me Feel Better
by Honeychurch

I bought this record as it was going out of print. I was sort of in a big guitar phase and so it didn't initially strike me as the work of art that I've since recognized it to be. I liked the ninth track, Welcome Home, Spacegirl because it had an old-psych guitar break and it was nine minutes long. When I watched the Monterey Pop festival movie a while later I started to realize how important the record was. People were bringing back The Guess Who and Led Zeppelin but there was absolutely no one was doing a folk-rock revitalization. No one had thought to do for James Burton, Barry Melton, Roger McGuinn what Wolfmother, Mando Diao, Rooney and everyone at my high school doing for Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page. The Feelies and Tarkio had the right idea but never quite got it together. More importantly, at the time there was a shift underway among indie bands towards making studio-as-instrument records and making things as big as possible. Now I like it when music soars, but I also occasionally have to remind myself that you don't need a cast of thousands to do it. Every now and again four or five people can do the work of an orchestra. Rarer than that, however, is when those four or five people do it without theatrics.

I used to sit in my basement coming up with new lead parts for Welcome Home, Spacegirl. I hadn't yet started writing songs, so I would wait until dark and listen for Shilough to say "And rest your tired mind". That's when the four minute instrumental part happened and I would use all I knew about guitar playing to work through it as many times as I could before my eyes refused to stay open or my fingers refused to play. I wasn't very good (I'm still not very good) and more times than not had to stop and concede to Tim Kratz and Shilough Hopwood. The chords were strange and I wasn't used to such a progression. I was used to really simple stuff because that's all I had ever attempted at that point. Something was happening on this record that I'd never encountered before.

When I got a job at Siren Records and was slowly introduced to every band in the classic rock section, I finally got to see where Richard Thompson, my favorite guitar player got his start. It was in a band called Fairport Convention, a band that Larissa got me interested in. Fairport, a band that I've learned no one under twenty seems to have heard of, played folk rock before it was a genre, created new music generally using old poetry and ancient folk lyrics, though occasionally they wrote their own lyrics. The aim was to make music that was essentially timeless, rock that sounded like it came from the 14th century. When I came to Boston this January and started looking for a job in other record stores the first thing I noticed was that no one carried Fairport Convention. In fact no other record store I'd ever been to carried Fairport Convention. No one else I'd ever met had ever talked about them. I couldn't understand why. It's funny, a big part of maturing are those times when the pieces of a puzzle that have been floating around your head for a while finally fit together. Larissa knew about this band because she loved the music they played. She loved old folk music like no one else I'd ever met and that is precisely why the music she played sounded so very perfect. Some people will stumble upon a genre and then decide to devote themselves to it for an album or two, but for the most part don't really have much to say on the subject (Springsteen's Pete Seeger record, Cat Power's soul record, Ben Harper's gospel record). Honeychurch songs are so exceptional because they come from the minds of people who have lived the music all their lives. There is love on every Honeychurch song and it ties the Makes Me Feel Better record together with stronger feelings than any folk record in many, many years. I asked Larissa one time if she could put together her ideal band, comprised of any musicians living or dead, what would it be like. I'm paraphrasing, but her response was something like: "I don't know, I kinda like the band I'm in now." I didn't get it then, but I get it now. I have a band (I'm not comparing, just hear me out) and I understand that when you play together with someone even once in front of a crowd, you wouldn't trade them for anything. Now imagine you're in Honeychurch; you wouldn't ask for anything more, either.

There are a lot of bands used in sonic comparisons (Red House Painters, GP, Low, Mojave 3 (who Larissa sang with last year when Rachel Goswell fell ill), Luna, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Neil Young) but truth be told I think these guys are the most unique of their type and much less aggravating than Neil Young or Mark Kozelek. They have the roots sound down in ways that Mojave 3 hasn't quite perfected, and they don't shy away from sounding like country like the Red House Painters. No one who listened to Honeychurch could accuse them of sounding like every other country band (especially by today's standards) and that they have the conviction to embrace their roots is admirable and honest. You can hear it in the first notes.

The record starts with "Fields on Fire", which after a few seconds introduces Honeychurch's most unique feature, Tim Kratz's guitar. Kratz, as far as I know, invented his method of playing the guitar. It sounds like a pedal steel guitar but it's actually a telecaster with a slide, a bigsby, and reverb and some other stuff I can't figure out. It's amazing, he can reproduce the sound of a lap steel on his six strings on command, which is to me more impressive than learning how to play an instrument. I may at some point get around to doing a Devil's Hands post about his playing, but he doesn't currently play with Honeychurch, it may be difficult. Tim is awesome because he can do both the subtle complimentary slide playing or more eloquent Peter Buck type stuff on what might be my favorite song on the record "From The Sky". That aside, his playing is brilliant and on the next track it takes a more central role. "Chancery Lane" shows Honeychurch at their strongest. Stefan Baker's drums set the pace, strings swoon beneath the Hopwood's heavenly voices, Tim's guitar reminds us we're still on earth and Shilough's guitar reminds us all this beauty came started small. It doesn't just come from nowhere, even genius starts small.

I've been meaning to ask Shilough if I could try and have my band cover "From The Sky" for awhile because it's the only one I'd not feel completely intimidated trying to play. On it, Shiliough's voice is as close to manageable as it comes, Larissa's voice stays in one place (albeit an impossibly high one) instead of showing the full capability of her vocal range like she does on "Birds" and "The Darkest Hour" (how dare she perform to the best of her ability!), Stefan's drumming is, thankfully, not as complicated as Tim's guitar, though here he takes a break from being virtuosic and is simply very difficult to keep up with. It's an incredible song and it finally clicked one night as I was driving. In fact, the whole record clicked that night. I was on my way back from somewhere and got a chance to listen to the whole record; a fresh start. I had always been envious of Shilough, but right then I was beside myself. Not just with jealousy for his talent but out of frustration at the world for not immediately recognizing this as the gift that it is. Maybe they aren't ready for it, who knows? Maybe they never got to "Chancery Lane (Revisited)" which serves as proof that any way it's played the music here is wonderful. You can hear four people playing guitar and singing or you can hear a string quartet playing it with reverb so thick you could get lose a shoe trying to walk through it. Maybe they, like me, need a few more listens to figure it out. Whatever it is, everyone who hasn't heard them is missing out.

I had the immense pleasure of playing before them not too long ago. I felt so small and silly when after all my songs had been played they set up and effortlessly played the music they were born to make.


Basho said...

I like honeychurch, have since I first heard them

Scout said...

I feel everyone else might too, if they would only try

Vinny said...

I wrote Second Chance & played harmonica on both albums! Nice post. Thanks!