reviewed by Kaitlin Ruether
A few weeks ago — in the spirit of the new year — I found myself shrouded in anxiety about what a new start could mean, what my place in this year will be, and how to hold on when ideas of replenishment and fresh starts drifted like the kind of snowflakes that fall clumpy and wet and land, somehow always, on the side of your face to drip down your neck. But then I rediscovered my affection for pop music, and the album of five friends based out of Calgary who believe in love and learning and change managed to pierce my gloom.
Sometimes remembering yourself involves dancing to polished melodies, or revelling in a chaotic guitar line that snakes through a wash of synths. Sometimes it’s letting yourself sing-along with repeated lyrics and allowing heartbroken words to flutter through you. All of this is present on The Ashley Hundred’s self-titled debut album. All this, plus a sprinkle and dash of psychedelic freedom, folk-tinged gentleness, and electronic jolts.
Stylistically, The Ashley Hundred is full of specific and unique choices that in practice become seamless. The use of the omnichord on “Rooftops” and the haunting lap steel on “Marble World” aren’t highlights of the tracks, but rather integrations that make the tracks into highlights. The album — which often uses layers of vocalizing to create depth and, in the case of “Something Strange”, joviality — has a keen awareness of self and style. There are patterns that are created and made conventions, such as atmospheric openings that break apart, and simple, retro guitar melodies that evoke the 60s.
When you know who you are it is so much easier to pull from the world around you, and this becomes evidenced in the way The Ashley Hundred dip into off-kilter melodies and restrained anxiety to create stark twists. The keys on “A Grand Day Out” trickle and melt like that clump of snow down your neck while the mood shifts from an alien minimalism to a wash of voices. I’m making this sound unpleasant. It isn’t. “Left Behind” becomes an exercise in craft as the opening wash technique gives way to a concrete electric guitar and a down-to-earth banjo. The distance shifts closer, the hard-to-grasp lays itself in your hands. Of course, this is helped by the instrumental ambiance bleed of “Island”, which precedes it.
While we’re on the subject of track order, The Ashley Hundred certainly have a knack: the opening “Mirage Mirage” is a strong introduction with its melancholy catchiness and psychedelic inclinations. The first third of the album feels captured by a playfulness before it settles into something more internal, then ends on a starrier, sexier couple of tracks that leave you with a sense of confidence — something gained from the band’s symbiotic energy.
Top Tracks: “Mirage Mirage”; “Left Behind”
Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *Swoop*