Minimalist & Anchored
In college, I was voted the most depressing DJ @ WMWM in Salem, Massachusetts. This début album by Heller Mason would have fit in well with my crying in the beer arsenal. During that time I played the heck out of a seven inch by Whiskeytown. The song “The Strip” really got to me. (This was before Ryan Adams became such a jerk. Wait, let me rephrase that, this was before I discovered that Ryan Adams was such a self absorbed asshole). These songs really remind me of that seven inch. They are country tinged, sad & sweet.
I nearly wrote this band off when I went to their Myspace page and saw the dreaded self- applied “Emo” tag. Originally, this term was used only as an insult, and in my opinion, this is the lone way it should be applied. Thankfully, I looked past the grievous error of using such an offensive word and found that I really did enjoy this disc.
Heller Mason is the name of the group and not a person as I first thought. Todd Vandenberg is the main songwriter and vocalist. His vocals have the same warm-hearted quality of Mark Kozelek’s from the Red House Painters. Like the Red House Painters, Vandenberg is clearly influenced by Neil Young’s more acoustic and country-inspired tunes.
Vandenberg has the nasty habit of making one feel old. I still remember listening to Karate sing about being nineteen and not yet being that age. When Vandenberg sings about the sadness and desperation of being in one’s mid-twenties, the problems now seem sweetly quaint.
Some of Vandenberg’s lyrics are cringe worthy, but endearingly so. On “Drown the Villages on the Maine Coast,” he sings, “I got mint tea, mint tea, with honey. But it did not do anything for my throat. All it did was burn my nose.” Fortunately, the slight lyrical missteps are brief. The music it self is fantastic, with sparkling acoustic guitars, swelling violins, wails of steel guitar, and crisp percussion.
Over all this is an excellent debut. The music of Heller Mason is both hopeful and poignant. With time, the band’s music will develop into something wonderful.
(Silber) (Dan Cohoon)