Against interpretation

Hallelujah the Hills get litr’y with it
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  June 12, 2007

VIDEO: Hallelujah the Hills, "Wave Backwards to Massachusetts"

To file Hallelujah the Hills under “literary rock” would be, according to frontman Ryan Walsh, an insult to literature and an insult to rock. Several facts belie this claim. My first exposure to Walsh and HtH came a bunch of months back at a reading of James Joyce’s dirty letters at Great Scott. “Be my whore, my mistress, my dark blue rain drenched flower,” Walsh read. It wasn’t till later in the night that he actually played. He doesn’t look like the typical indie-rocker — with his Sunday-morning-messy hair, he’s built like a dude who could give a good hug. I might’ve been the only one in the room who didn’t already know who he was, who HtH were, but it was good to find out.

This was more than a year after the break-up of the Stairs, a group who included Walsh and current HtH (and Ho-Ag) drummer Eric Meyer. The rose-from-the ashes cliché doesn’t apply. If anything, HtH rose out of the just-ignited fire of the Stairs; it was only as they announced their break-up that they started getting attention. “Typical Boston,” says Meyer, who has a drummer’s pair of muscled shoulders and a palpable restlessness. He’s sitting to my left at the Irish Village in Brighton on a wet night, the eve of the release of HtH’s outstanding first album, Collective Psychosis Begone (Misra). “A non-truth began that we were beloved,” says Walsh of the Stairs. “We were playing for nobody.” Meyer and Walsh teamed with cellist David Bentley, bassist Joe Marrett, trumpeter Brian Rutledge, and Moog synthist, organist, and guitarist Elio DeLuca. The band play Great Scott again this Saturday.

There are other literary links. HtH wrote a version of “Monster Eyes,” a song in Jonathan Lethem’s recent rock novel You Don’t Love Me, and they performed after a Lethem reading to a packed Coolidge Corner Theatre. They judged a raunchiest-passage reading at Brookline Booksmith. In e-mails, Walsh quotes poet John Ashbery, art critic Jerry Saltz, and Carl Jung. And that’s not to mention the actual lyrics.

“Part of the attraction of this band is the lyrics of Ryan,” says Bentley, who has a Southerner’s ability to sound warm and well-mannered even when he’s swearing. “It’s fucking wordy stuff. He uses a lot of uncommon language.”

But the band shouldn’t be reduced to the words, says an ardent DeLuca, the most recent addition to HtH, a mischievous-looking guy with a flop of hair on top, glasses, sharp sideburns. And he’s right about the danger of caging the band in a literary-rock rubric. The delicate, precise, bizarre images from “Wave Backwards to Massachusetts” — “Keep an eye on the loggers preparing for battle/And textbooks glow like they know where we’re going”; “a cat with a wind-chime skeleton” — don’t inspire reflection. They’re more likely to get people on their feet and dancing, because there’s an energy and an urgency that’s of a piece with the music, when the drums are going, and the trumpet, and — hey! they’re singing about Massachusetts!

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