Little Neon Limelight

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Houndmouth have embraced the concept of "loosely tight," delivering a rollicking fusion of boogie-fied retro-rock and folk-flavored Americana that's been carefully crafted to sound casual even though this band clearly worked out these songs with meticulous care. The "loosely tight" vibe served Houndmouth well on their first album, 2013's From the Hills Below the City, and they've swum even farther into the deep end with their sophomore effort, 2015's Little Neon Limelight. The performances on Little Neon Limelight sound and feel like they were captured live in the studio with a minimum of fuss, right down to the chatter that trails several tracks, and the group's four-part harmonies are easygoing but impressive. In addition, guitarist Matt Myers' sharp, concise riffs recall any number of '60s and '70s boogie masters (most notably Sam Andrew of Big Brother & the Holding Company), and Katie Toupin's keyboards add tasty accents and her occasional lead vocals are suitably soulful and emotionally expansive while still sounding low-key. But as good as Houndmouth are at sounding like an enthusiastic country-rock band from a bygone age of patchouli and bongwater, something about Little Neon Limelight doesn't quite ring true; the melodies are OK, but the lyrics seem clich├ęd and formulaic, and as much as Houndmouth have done their homework, they're ultimately running on riffs and ideas that are the product of another age, and while they work these angles well, they're incapable of making the music sound entirely their own. Houndmouth feel a bit like a jam band that never gets around to playing an extended improvisation, which might feel like an advantage in theory, but turns out to be less of a virtue in execution as these players can't seem to get their boogie into fifth gear. Houndmouth have the right touch and impressive chops, but this album makes it clear they needs a songwriter who can make their music seem fresh even as it's modeled on the past.

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