Thrill Jockey, 2008
By Allana Mayer
Nathan Bell and David Heumann (hence “Human Bell,” get it?) have rap sheets that namedrop every innovative folk/Americana player of the last five years. Anomoanon, Arbouretum, Cass McCombs, Will Oldham, Papa M, and Lungfish have all benefited from the skills of these gentlemen. I can’t tell you how much I like each of these influences, or how excited I was for this release. Thank God Human Bell delivered.
Most of the album was recorded in Kentucky — gee, does it show? Cormac McCarthy’s probably penning his newest miserable epic to the desolate guitar loops of “Splendor and Concealment.” Better yet, the novel will be a tribute to fourth track “Outposts of Oblivion,” just like Doug Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma. I wonder if they’d use all the original songs if they decided to make it into a movie. Maybe it’d be like I’m Not There and only get upscale artsy covers. (Please give me partial intellectual rights if you decide to do this, Cormac. You’re rich enough, aren’t you?) End digression.
Then again, the entirely instrumental album is guaranteed to garner excessive use of the word “sountrack” in reviews, not entirely unwarranted given the repetitive quality of most songs. It’s almost closer to promotional material than a true artistic effort: it sounds like something whipped off in a lazy weekend, with a “look what we can do” sneer. This is by no means a failing: Human Bell really do make it sound easy, though I have no illusions about the technical skill required to get such clear, spot-on blues riffs to spill so freely from a guitar. It’s refreshing to hear something not sample-addled, an album with no frills or complications. The few touches of distortion in “The Singing Trees” and the sensitive echoes of “Hanging From The Rafters” serve as more atmospheric afterthoughts than essential additions. Even the rhythm section is scaled down to a few messy stomps and the occasional cymbal crash. Looping vibraphones in “A Change in Fortunes” remind me of The Mercury Program’s finer moments, and give the track an ease and grace. If this album was a pickup line, it’d be one that actually worked: that’s the kind of smooth we’re talking about here.
Sure, some of you might find Human Bell a tad on the slow side, but I can’t imagine anyone not liking this record — anyone with the slightest inkling of musical talent, anyways. What I’m saying is, go get it. Uh, now.