With Hollow Heart The Hanging Stars transcend their well-earned repute as masters of a captivating meld of blissful psychedelic folk and harmony-laden cosmic country. This fourth album from the accomplished London five-piece; recorded at Edwyn Collins’ Clashnarrow Studios in North-Eastern Scotland; scales fresh artistic heights, as they conjure a record more sonically varied, more contemporary, and less in awe of its influences.
In parallel to their three acclaimed albums – Over The Silvery Lake (2016), Songs For Somewhere Else (2017), and A New Kind Of Sky (2020) – they’ve built a formidable live reputation both as performers, and through long-standing relationships with West Coast peers such as GospelbeacH and Miranda Lee Richards, participants and instigators of memorable happenings.
Hollow Heart though is an album of firsts. Their first album recorded over a specific timescale in a specific place, their first album to favour sound as much as song, their first album created under novel circumstances, and their first album for the storied Loose Music. Events dictated the actual path to Hollow Heart would not be quite as anticipated but it was not unprepared for. It simply became a matter of seizing the time: “We’re constantly writing songs, we’d already worked on a few things, why don’t we just take this up now and do it !“.
‘Taking this up’ meant ‘going to Scotland’. There was an open invitation to record at Edwyn’s studio, once live shows had been ruled out indefinitely they pivoted to the ambition of heading up there as soon as they could. Demoing online through the late spring and early summer of 2020 allowed them an idea of what the songs were going to be; their shape, and that of the adventure, quickly took form.
They – singer and guitarist Richard Olson, bassist Sam Ferman, drummer Paulie Cobra, Patrick Ralla guitars and keyboards, and pedal steeler Joe Harvey-Whyte – along with producer Sean Read (Soulsavers, Dexys) – were soon embarking on the two-day drive to reach Helmsdale, and the unique studio sitting on a cliff overlooking the North Sea. Richard had been a member of the short-lived, now-legendary Eighteenth Day Of May, before forming The See See with Pete Greenwood; Paulie and Sam would later join, and from that band evolved The Hanging Stars. The line-up settled after the first album when Joe, and Patrick, who’d played for some years with The Rockingbirds and Alan Tyler, would become permanent members.
Clashnarrow provided a fresh kind of recording experience, and with Sean at the helm they attained a focus and discipline allowing them to fully realise the performances they aspired to. The bucolic ambience of the place was infectious, such that a loucheness inhabited the groove and they could relax into a freedom to follow where the music led, knowing Edwyn’s bespoke equipment would faithfully preserve it. Having determined on a far more pronounced emphasis on sonics, they were in just the right place to realise that.
It’s impossible to overemphasise just how good Hollow Heart sounds; and how the songs continually change and evolve but in a manner so measured and so patient that it seemingly happens organically. They’d recognised the gains to be achieved through rowing back on the intensity; “We’d often had that London band thing, of leaning forward; now we were leaning back”. Thus ‘Ava’ can open the album with an unhurried, smouldering intro of wire and string; blossoming by degrees but with such a self-possession that time slips by unheeded and only the arrival of vocals, guitar, and resolute drums, can puncture the reverie.
The harsh, cold turkey pop of ‘Black Light Night’ – a Ralla tune with Olson lyrics – spins dark with piercing shards of guitar softening into hooks, and turning it into what sounds mightily like a hit single. The same could be said of ‘Radio On’; a would-be make-out song with magnetic trot and Olson’s appropriately slurry singing. Richard’s vocals across Hollow Heart regularly surprise; he believes them the best he’s ever got down, and the evidence repeatedly confirms that.
Like a soft-focus David Gates’ dream-song Weep & Whisper’ is gorgeously near-ambient, with pedal steel and piano: ‘There’s a girl I used to know she wore her hair long in an endless satin bow’: replete with beautiful harmonies from Paulie Cobra it does however carry a sting. “It’s a love song to youth, and how you’re thinking about the future, then the future comes along, and ‘fuck me its cold outside’”. An example too of how much The Hanging Stars create collaboratively. The song initially had a completely different beat until Joe suggested a fresh arrangement putting a shuffle on it
It’s a similar story with ‘Hollow Eyes, Hollow Heart’, a song about taking refuge in something you really shouldn’t, and feeling an empty shell in consequence. The dark Richard Thompson-like aura carries a sense of stalk. Initially Krautrock, Patrick’s arrangement half-timed it and upped the menace. In contrast ‘Ballad Of Whatever May Be’ is soaringly carpe diem; the lyric comprises half a dozen apposite aphorisms culminating in “drink up your wine before the glass runs dry”. One of Hollow Heart‘s later songs – a co-write by Richard and Sam it grew from the Helmsdale experience; “you’re sitting looking over this bay, in the live room, massive windows, watching the sun setting, and you think ‘do everything while you can cos then you fucking die’ “
A raft of lift and echo inhabit ‘You’re So Free’; it’s possible to detect hints of The Turtles, Ethiopian jazz piano, and The Mighty Boosh. Addressing anti-vaxxers it grew from a riff of Joe’s which Richard then ran with. Sam Ferman’s ‘Rainbows On Windows’ is equally of the times, and with the voice of Edwyn Collins intoning lyrical snippets in a move inspired by Velvet Underground’s ‘The Gift’. Richard’s close-mic singing is shadowed by Sam, and accompanied by rolling fingerpicking evolving into a wash of celestial shoegaze.
‘I Don’t Want To Feel So Bad Anymore’ begins as a throwback to the sound of The See See with McGuinn-style opening and garage vivacity; it then evolves though hints of baroque and fresh harmonies into something very political, albeit negatively so. “You’re dying ‘cos you’ve had enough. You’re giving up, and you revel in how nice that feels, which is a horrible thing, and I never want to go there, but it’s playing with the idea of that.”
‘Red Autumn Leaf’ then flutters in a delightfully wonky fashion; the harmonies hold back, it’s all a bit rough, lo-fi, and slightly untidy but a song where wrongness makes right. Its extended outro mirrors the album’s beginning, circling and fading like the leaf gradually reaching its resting place, while guiding this remarkable album to its close.
Excitement tumbles out of the band in anticipation of Hollow Heart‘s reception; “I don’t want to be famous, but I want our music to be famous. I want our songs to break through I like pop music, things that stay in your head, that give you goosebumps. It’s funny, positive, optimistic, to feel contemporary, valid now. This feels like it’s a different band and it’s the first time!”; and they got a right. Throughout the vocal arrangements amaze, and the breadth of instrumental exploration inspires awe. The Hanging Stars simply shine brighter than ever; as with Hollow Heart they’ve self-confidently seized the opportunity to birth a record that creates its own world and time, and insists on being heard.
All comments/quotes from Richard Olson