You know that old adage, don’t you? Everyone knows it.
You can take the Houndmouth out of the southern Indiana but you can’t take the southern Indiana out of the Houndmouth. It’s a saying as old as the written word, obviously.
Little Neon Limelight, Houndmouth’s follow-up to their 2013 debut From the Hills Below the City, opens with the band rebelling against that very sentiment. Lush album opener “Sedona” finds the quartet in the Great American Southwest: the sound of a windswept desert evening blends with the soft, fingerpicked guitar intro to set the scene, placing the band outside of their southern Indiana stomping grounds for the first time in their career. As the band enters the fray, guitarist/vocalist Matt Meyers’ voice emerges, clear and sharp, conjuring images of redstone, stagecoaches, and neon lights. The song comes careening to a halt, the band’s four distinct voices harmonizing in that bittersweet way that’s become something of their trademark. With “Sedona,” Houndmouth has arrived: confident, swinging, and more than a little forlorn.
But while “Sedona” transported them from the hills of New Albany, the little southern Indiana town across the Ohio from Louisville, the rest of the album finds the band pretty firmly in the wheelhouse they established for themselves on their debut. Then again, maybe all their time spent in Louisville, the band’s adopted home, has rubbed off on them. The rest of Little Neon Limelight doesn’t take place out west; rather, it is steeped in the kind of roots, blues, and soul that is so ingrained in the musical fabric of the South.
The album’s second track, “Otis,” sets that tone clearly. Keyboardist/vocalist Katie Toupin takes the reins on this track, a stately soul groove that features Toupin’s plaintive vocals and soaring harmonies during the chorus. Toupin’s voice, a highlight of Houndmouth’s debut, has only grown more confident. The same can be said of the voices of bassist Zak Appleby and drummer Shane Cody, both of whom take the lead on a couple songs. Cody’s voice is pure Southern honeyed drawl, and on the understated, show-stopping “Honey Slider,” it emerges from behind his drum kit like a ferry through the Cumberland River fog before it’s enveloped again by the band’s stunning harmonies and a towering guitar solo from Myers. It’s an album highlight.
Myers has always been the most willing singer in the band, and he gets a chance to shine on his own with “For No One,” a solo acoustic ballad that finds the guitarist at his most intimate. Myers, armed with nothing but his guitar, lets his words fall over one another, like pre-Born To Run era Springsteen used to do. Listen to the way he crams his syllables together when he sings, “They saw the black dawn off in the midnight skies/man, you shoulda seem ’em, they were so down in the dumps that evening.” It’s almost conversational; he’s talking to you, talking to me, talking to whomever it is that’s left him with that shrapnel in his knee. It makes the song all the more intimate, and it’s almost jarring when it ends as abruptly as it does.
While not as willing a singer as his guitar-wielding band mate, Appleby leads the band through the rollicking “15 Years,” a standard 12-bar blues that’s electrified by the band’s tempo changes, which shift from careening to shuffling and back again. Toupin’s organ stabs and Myers’ guitar solo make this track a true rave-up.
Like Myers early in the album, Toupin gets her own time to shine with the delicate, lilting “Gasoline.” Toupin’s voice is framed only by fingerpicked acoustic guitar and some ethereal background vocals here and there. If Myers is the most willing, charismatic vocalist in the group, then Toupin is probably the most naturally gifted. Her voice soars with ease and swells with emotion, her ability to convey feeling her greatest strength. If she were to strike out on her own in the future, she’d have no problem making an imprint.
But while Myers and Toupin are their twin focal points, Houndmouth’s true secret weapon is the rhythm section of Appleby and Cody. They’re the boiler room, the engine, the fuel that makes this whole thing go. Whether it’s subtle and reserved (“Honey Slider”) or full-throttle (“15 Years”), the bass-and-drum duo are as vital to this album’s success as their two onstage lynchpins. Look no further than the superb “Black Gold.” The rhythm section pulses and drives, Cody’s cymbal splashes and drum fills locking in with Appleby’s bass lines to counter Myers’ guitar fills. This song might be the album’s apex. It’s got everything: great, nimble guitar work; the aforementioned rhythm section; soaring four-part harmonies. It’s so very Houndmouth, and the band knows it. Listen to Cody shout “one more time!” in the background before the band finally ends the song. They’re digging it, and they know we are, too.
One thing’s for certain: this album isn’t nearly as immediate as From the Hills. That’s not necessarily a criticism, though. These songs grow on you. They’re well-composed. They’re ably-performed. The band is confident and swinging, tightly honed after all that touring. Some songs are goofy and absurd, like “My Cousin Greg.” Some are fun and frantic, like “Say I,” with its carnival organ and delirious background vocals. And some are absolutely gorgeous, like the soul balladry of album closer “Darlin'”. Much like its counterpart on From the Hills (“Palmyra”), “Darlin'” is a slow-burner with beautiful, soaring organ lines and an understated, dynamic guitar solo. The song positively sparkles, and ends the album in breathtaking fashion.
Another thing that separates this album from their debut is the production. On From the Hills, the songs sounded like live takes from the studio, with little in the way of post-production. On Limelight, that is essentially the case, but the band takes little steps into studio trickery that they eschewed on their debut. Things like the whistling wind that opens “Sedona” or the far-off vocals that puncture “For No One” come to mind. That little bit of saxophone that makes its way onto “Black Gold”. Little touches that accentuate the songs and add to their overall appeal. The overall production, too, is brilliant: this record sounds organic, and plays a large part in pushing the rhythm section to the forefront.
From the opening wind gusts of “Sedona” to the final chords of “Darlin'”, Houndmouth have crafted a fine follow-up to their tremendous debut. It might take a couple of listens, but this is a record worth sitting with. If this record, combined with sterling reports of their live shows, are any indication, this is a band that’ll be a force for some time. No matter where they go geographically, we’ll go right along with them. Even if they want to get outside of Indiana for a bit.