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Hutch Harris’ New Album, ‘Only Water’, Reviewed

Hutch Harris

 

A few days ago, Ex-Thermals Hutch Harris very quietly released a solo album entitled ‘Only Water’ on Bandcamp. The discreet promotion (a few tweets and Instagram posts from Harris himself) didn’t prevent Noisey, Brooklyn Vegan, Consequence of Sound and other music blogs to notice… and rightly so.

I have seen the Thermals live only once, about 8 years ago, and if I haven’t closely followed their career since, I know that the Portland band broke up at the beginning of this year. However, during ‘RISE ABOVE’, a benefit show to encourage people to register to vote, I had the chance to see Hutch Harris play an acoustic set of pretty covers and songs with slightly disturbing lyrics. As it was in September, I can’t remember if he played some of these new songs though.

‘Only Water’ is as low-key as its publicity campaign with a DIY aesthetic and a distortion-free production. It’s much quieter than everything Harris has done before, and it’s surely a departure from the punk-oriented music of the Thermals. However, all the songs of the album have catchy hooks that sound strangely familiar at the first listening experience. If it’s not a Thermals album, it sounds like the work of someone focusing on his own songwriting, it’s a quiet introspection with a deliberately melancholic mood, which is gently haunting the 10 songs.

With a gentle whisper and an almost conversational tone, ‘Only Water’ starts with ‘I’m Ready to Leave’ and Hutch Harris’ detached tone. If it is a breakup song, which is a recurrent theme for the album, it is happening after the raw pain of the event, and the slightly triumphant victory in the melody makes the song float between melancholia and a mood determined to go for the uplift despite a crumbling relationship.

This first song sets the tone for the entire album, and other tracks, like ‘I Will Try to Forget You’, are definitively an extension on this same direction, while each song is looking for a variation on this palette of blue moods. The music is getting more playful and seductive during ‘You Can Believe Me Now’, or more lonely during ‘No River Left’ which surprisingly owns one of the catchiest choruses of the album… ‘One Day I’ll wish you would’ve stayed/But right now I’ll let you walk away’ is an instant earworm, which surely will make you look for more.

But charming guitar lines are all over the album, as each song delivers one potential hook with a mellow approach, and after the almost serene whisper of ‘Anything is Possible’ and the resigned despair of ‘Only Water’ (‘No one’s gonna find me/Alone, alone on the open sea’), ‘I Belong to No One’ takes a slight The Smiths/The Drums departure with a breezy musical theme, while ‘We Will Be Alone’ and its clear diction seems to be celebrating loneliness as if it wasn’t so bad after all. The idea becomes even more obvious with ‘You and Yesterday’ and its bouncy and cheerful clap-song style.

With distant percussion, the tone of the 10-song album is that of a cozy rainy afternoon, and while the focus is on lovely guitar lines and emotional melodies, it’s more pensive than sad, and definitively more lonely than gloomy, despite the ambient melancholy, ‘So I walked back home /Back to the place I hadn’t known in so long /And you were gone’ quietly sings Harris during ‘I Walked Back Home’, which closes the album, it is a simple line over a discreet melody, but it conveys enough emotions to make you spin the album a few more times.

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