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St. Thomas | Hey, Harmony (City Slang)
On his fourth album, and second for City Slang, the incongruous hybrid that is Thomas Hansen returns with further examples of what happens when a Scandinavian singer-songwriter mixes his penchants for Americana and traditional Norwegian folk, this time aided and abetted by members of labelmates Lambchop, Jeremy Barnes of Neutral Milk Hotel and the ubiquitous (but here indistinguishable) Howe Gelb. Produced by the 'Chop's Mark Nevers, 'Hey, Harmony' is a surprisingly lacklustre collection that lacks both the intimacy of the earlier, lo-fi records or the progression anticipated due to his collaborators and Nashville setting.
As erratic and charming as Hansen is in live performance, such unpredictably is sadly absent on this collection which seems to rely on odd sonic flourishes (see the space-age effects on Like A Big Time and soundbites of People in the Forest) to disguise a dearth of melodic ideas. Whilst simplicity plays a large part in the St. Thomas persona, the 'joke' is wearing a little thin at this point and the childlike whimsical wordplay has become cliché and betrays a laziness and lack of quality control.
Despite these criticisms, the album isn't a total failure. Opener A Long Long Time counters a weak lyric with an undeniably charming chorus, and Falling Down is perhaps the most successful example of the blending of writer and musicians, whilst the infuriating chorus to New Apartment is tempered by a delightful harmony vocal attributed, we assume, to the mysterious 'Patty' name-checked on the press release.
Said document makes a persuasive case for what some might see as Hansen's shortcomings: "Everything about 'Hey, Harmony' is unpolluted," it claims, "from the lyrics to the structures, from the gleeful yodelling...to the simple technique of repeating a verse more than once rather that writing another... From lesser writers it might seem unimaginative, but somehow Hansen magically turns it into something charming and bewitching, much like a nursery rhyme." A cynic might counter that such charm derives from Hansen's limited English vocabulary, not from some predetermined blueprint.
The closing ballad, Institution, whilst a world away from the "harrowing" song championed by the marketing department, offers evidence that the St. Thomas well hasn't quite run dry just yet, and one hopes that instead of simply enlisting the services of a stellar group of musicians, the next album takes a few more risks and delivers content deserving of the hyperbole.
CWAS #12 - Summer 2003