Dark, scintillating gems: Johnny Hollow – Dirty Hands

by 5:4

Mmelancholy, theatricality and an understated gothic darkness pervade the second and most recent album by Johnny Hollow, Dirty Hands, released last year. And it’s just as well that these qualities are understated; the authentic, original traits of the 1980s indie ‘goth’ have become so hideously contorted into the present-day big label ’emo’ fake that bands seeking to allude to these dark characteristics do well to keep them in check. But there’s not the barest hint of inauthenticity in Johnny Hollow’s output, which begs the question of why this Canadian group is not more well-known. Dirty Hands ended up 19th on my top 40 releases of 2008, and rightly so; it’s a splendid creation, blending instrumental sounds (piano, strings) and electronics into the indie-goth mix, resulting in a music with impressively broad scope.

From the outset, the curious juxtaposition of elements is exciting; “Alchemy” begins mildly enough, sounding like a fin-de-siecle waltz, but after a time lurches into more menacing territory, with hints of danse macabre, dissolving in mayhem. “Stranger” is the first actual song, and maintains a restrained demeanour throughout; there’s a kind of innocence to the track that belies what is to come. While “Stranger” broadly adheres to a familiar structure, “Die For Love” does nothing of the kind, spending half of its duration in an extended (at first, rather affected) introduction. This is instantly redolent of The Cure, who also used to spend long periods of time setting the scene for the song that was to follow. The remainder of the song flits between contrasting episodes, by turns aggressive and delicate; it makes for a rather breathless, but exciting experience. “This Hollow World” continues in a more determinedly forceful vein, its minor key made more piquant through use of the Phrygian mode. The opening of “Worse Things” is all crackles and lumbering, dragging itself into another, rather laboured waltz; the instrumental elements here give the combined effect of a kind of doom-laden chamber music. It also brings the hitherto rather bridled element of theatre to the forefront; at times, it almost approximates the atmosphere of Victorian carnival music. While “Nova Heart” doesn’t quite live up to the three impressive tracks that have preceded it, it is beautifully lyrical, with arguably the most well-developed melodic material on the album, the cello providing a plangent counterpoint. i included “Superhero” on my Best of 2008 mixtape, and for me this is the standout track; structurally, it’s rather conventional (although bridge passages seem to crop up when one least expects them), but i just love its sound-world, neatly encapsulating all the disparate facets of Johnny Hollow’s music.

“Boogey Man” is a surly track (one can almost hear the singer’s curled lip), but with a brief, unexpectedly lovely moment at its dead centre; like clouds parting, the abrasiveness temporarily gives way to an episode of constantly shifting harmonies, quite unlike anything else yet heard on the album. It suggests a sophistication that Dirty Hands as a whole doesn’t really testify to; and it doesn’t return in this song either, a short glimpse of something ‘other’. Phrygian harmonies return and familiar structures are cast aside once again in “Human Lullaby”, which takes the form of a meandering chaconne, exploring a distant, half-whispered landscape rooted in a softly rotating chord sequence. At times, especially towards the conclusion, it contains the album’s most exquisitely diaphanous material. A dogged 6/8 metre is the basis for “Alibi”, and a return to the kind of devilish dance heard earlier; once again, cello and piano are prominent, seeming simultaneously to mellow the music while also giving it more bite and urgency. “Stone Throwers” keeps sounding as though it wants to break out into the first of Bach’s cello suites; its structure is curious: the first half comes across like a long, large verse, the latter like an extended chorus. While not one of the most interesting songs on the album, it dissipates into a rather lovely coda. And now everything becomes clear; the presence of “People Are Strange”, with its overt cabaret overtones, perhaps expresses most clearly what the group is all about. Alongside The Doors‘ original, Johnny Hollow’s version also brings to mind that of Echo and the Bunnymen, or rather, the movie in which it was so prominently included: The Lost Boys—which also combines the gothic with carnival theatricality. Curiously, for being perhaps the archetypal Johnny Hollow song, it gets short shrift: a mere 2:49, the shortest track on the album. And to finish, “Aegis”, to some extent concluding Dirty Hands in a similar, instrumental manner to that in which it began, although it’s a curious, non-committal piece, the most (in fact, the only) unengaging track.

Despite a running of time of a little over 50 minutes, i always find i’m left wanting more from this release; the majority of the songs don’t go much beyond 3 minutes. One can’t help but feel that Johnny Hollow create music with sufficient quality, imagination and talent that they could do well exploring more lengthy durations. Nonetheless, these songs are dark, scintillating gems that deserve much, much wider exposure. Five years separate Dirty Hands from their first, self-titled album; hopefully, it won’t be as long before their next release.

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