It’s tough sometimes to
discuss new artists without mentioning their influences — call it a
feeble attempt on the reviewer’s part to ease the reader’s
transition from the unfamiliar to the familiar via a laundry list of
popular artists. But when the influences become so intertwined with
the art they inspire that they leave sonic traces in every corner of
the record, they cease to be touchstones and become a part of the
narrative. Such was the case with Swedish troubadour the Tallest Man
on Earth (born Kristian Matsson) — whose rampant Dylanizing seemed,
at first, too blatant to be true — and such is the case with John
Hurlahe’s Cass River County Line.
Out of the ashes of
local Michigan indie troupe Bird Dog, Hurlahe emerges with a
promising debut that, while rooted in his own experiences of young
Midwestern life, more often than not sounds more imitative than
personal or revelatory.
double-tracked vocals delivered in a slightly shaky, boyish cadence,
Hurlahe reproduces Bright Eyes so convincingly that it’s tough to
know where his inspiration starts and Conor Oberst’s ends. It’s a
well-worn sound: Oberst’s up-tempo living room folk has inspired
many bedroom artists to come out of the woodwork. While Hurlahe is
certainly better than most at reproducing Oberst’s aesthetic, it
seems strange to adopt as one’s own many of the idiosyncrasies that
have done much to set Oberst apart — vocal warbles, distant
microphone placement and all. The crucial ingredient that Hurlahe
lacks, however, to complete the Oberst takeoff — and, also, why his
album ultimately fails to leave a lasting impression — is the
fragile, heart-on-the-sleeve honesty and nakedness that colors that
singer-songwriter’s best songs.
Hurlahe comes close with “Metropolitan
Past,” one of the more inventive and personal moments on the album,
which samples speeches from 1960s Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh.
Eulogizing the lost era of a once-booming auto industry and a
pre-white flight Detroit, the song shuffles into a waltzing ballad
before Hurlahe emotionally delivers: “Is this the broken-down world
that they had in mind? / And who else are they? / We’ll find out in
“Silver Screen” is a
folk stomp with handclaps and a sing-along chorus that shows the
young songwriter at his most wide-eyed and cheery, while “Tall Tale”
is a slightly moodier take with more expansive productions (thanks
to a B3 organ and some well-placed electric guitar). Elsewhere, more
wistful songs of young love and rural living color the album.
Hurlahe is at his best behind a harmonica and a frantically-strummed
acoustic guitar, on tracks like the imaginative “Churchgrove St.”
To be clear, the deft,
backwoods production of Cass River County Line, while
light, sounds pretty good: With a tambourine-addled rhythm section
and plenty of tastefully layered banjo and acoustic guitar noodling,
it’s enough to give any folk fan a fix. But those searching for more
emotional depth or melodic complexity might have to wait another
album or two before Hurlahe can transform Oberst’s limited palette
into something he can really call his own.
Still, pastiche, when done well, can
work wonders — just ask Ryan Adams, or Kristian Matsson. And if the
Swedes can get away with it in 2010, why can’t we?
Reprint of Michigan Daily article
"John Hurlahe toes the Bright Eyes line on debut album" found at