Ride Out the Dark

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Title, artwork, and music are all carefully aligned on this impressive debut by Portland, Oregon's Katie Bernstein-fronted Houndstooth. Their knowing and subtle barroom hybrid of classic guitar-led indie and stomping country-rock suggests a cathartic, starlit journey through ghostly, lesser-known towns of America. However, Bernstein's calm, almost nonchalant vocal delivery seems to imply a gentle and measured midnight glide across the U.S. rather than a reckless, On the Road-style race for the city. Less ramshackle than hometown peers Richmond Fontaine and deploying a more whimsical take on Americana than Minneapolis mainstays the Jayhawks, Houndstooth draw on an array of disparate influences here and hit on a sound of their own. Even if "Canary Island" is a direct homage to the two-chord stomp of "Down by the River" and "New Illusion" nods to "Cowgirl in the Sand," each offers a fresh, concise, pop-infused take on the Crazy Horse template. In turn, on the coda of "Wheel on Fire" and the intro to "Strangers," the band acknowledges the lineage of jangly British guitar pop that stretches from the Stone Roses to Veronica Falls. Elsewhere, the motorik "Francis" is an inventive way of continuing the road-trip theme, while only "Bee Keepers" disappoints, if only because it appears unfinished and cries out for a proper chorus. Overall, though, as Bernstein dreams of "bright lights," "church tower chimes," "whispering pines," and "rolling...down to the cove" throughout the album, John Gnorski's surf-inspired guitar interjections prove to be equally lyrical and are another clear and defining element of Houndstooth's sound. By the time we reach "You Won't See Me" -- with its Peter Buck-inspired lullaby guitar figure -- Bernstein's evocative imagery is still going strong. With "the moon...asleep in the well" she helps to "clear all the bottles from the lawn," and while the verses and subsequent bridge hint at the closure and serenity found in the aftermath of an all-night party, the chorus suggests that she'll be moving on again soon. It's fitting that while Bernstein and Gnorski hail from the South, the remainder of the band is comprised of a Canadian and two Detroit-born players. Although Portland is home, it isn't where their roots lie, and as a result there's a believable sense of displacement and restlessness that informs this inspiring, thematically sound release.

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