reviewed by Michael Thomas
I’ve more than once said Doug Hoyer’s music is the soundtrack to real life, and no matter how much the instrumentation changes, his oeuvre continues to expand with songs that speak to your life, especially if you’re an enthusiastic fan of music. Stepping Stone is a scaled-back production compared to Dream Life, but his vocals and lyrics still feel like the equivalent of a warm hug.
A lot has changed since Hoyer’s last album; he’s now based in Athens, Georgia and the world…well, some things have happened. In the face of everything, there’s a relentless positive energy to this album. It’s more than just good vibes though—Hoyer’s songs are actually saying “I’ve got you, I will help you when you need someone.”
That’s the point of the title track, which plays with the idea of a “stepping stone,” which is usually the term for something used briefly and then cast away. The lo-fi, folky vibe of this song is a good idea of what to expect from this album—fewer full-band arrangements, more acoustic guitar and some harmonica. It’s hard to tell in this song whether the narrator is content or not with his role as a stepping stone, but he seems intent on making sure others get where they need to go.
There’s a lot more positive energy to be found, like in “Feel Better,” which encourages you to do just that. Opener “Welcome Back” weaves a gentle acoustic tapestry, welcoming you back to his music from wherever you’ve been.”
Hoyer’s move to Athens undoubtedly inspired the song “Snail Shell,” a more upbeat number that makes a journey to a new place less wistful and more exciting. The energetic chorus says “So chase your dreams/I’ll follow wherever you lead.” But he hasn’t forgotten about Edmonton, as evidenced by “Old Ugly House,” a song he wrote with Jim Cuming (Jom Comyn). One of the few songs with a backing band, this laid-back pop song is a vivid imagining of a very ugly house, but also an ode to the Old Ugly record label, a seminal organization for a lot of Edmonton talent.
The more laid-back production brings even more attention to Hoyer’s lyrics, and there’s a few songs that show a Joel Plaskett-esque attention to detail, like in “Ode to Shows,” a little world he constructs that includes a fan who gets into way too early, a show that doesn’t start on time (“Why can’t they start on time? It’s never been done before,” Hoyer sings) and with an opening band that got a 7 on Pitchfork. Closer “Thank You” is a song similar in warmth to “Welcome Back,” where Hoyer personally thanks you for any and all times you’ve listened to his music, be it from behind a computer screen or at one of his gigs. It’s similarly observant, talking of the sounds you might hear every day, from the bird waking you up in the morning to the whistling of a kettle.
There’s also a bit of U.S. election commentary in “A Link to the Past” (which is not related to Zelda in any way), an unexpectedly synth-y number that voices the frustration many must have felt on Nov. 8, 2016. It makes a specific reference to “building walls” and opens with “Do you feel up against the entire world, and you can’t see change down the line?” Ultimately, his solution is what many of us are embracing: supporting and empowering each other. It’s all we can do.
This album is more than a comfort on a cold day. It’s an unequivocal embrace, a helping hand, a tonic to your despair.
Top Tracks: “Snail Shell”; “A Link to the Past”
Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) +*swoop*