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Referred to as “shoegazer country” or “a singer-songwriter with a druggy, psychedelic backing band,” Portland, Oregon’s Hearts of Oak, the mastermind of front man/songwriter Nate Wallace, delivers a Jason Molina-inspired album with New England. A nine-track collection of songs that owe as much to the Americana forefathers as it does Crazy Horse, Velvet Underground, and even Spiritualized, New England breaks free of the standard confines of traditional alt. country, adding a hazy, acid-laced trip to the mix.
Engineered and produced by Ezra Meredith, the band’s guitarist, at Meredith’s Deer Lodge Studios in Portland, Oregon, the album isn’t what Wallace initially heard in his head. Rounding the band out with the rhythm section of J Lever on drums and Keith Richard McCarthy on bass, as well as Ezra’s brother Joel Meredith on pedal steel, the quintet set out to make a different record than Hearts of Oak’s two previous releases.
“I never heard my songs like this when I wrote them,” comments Wallace, “and to hear your own songs new to you, it’s incredible,” he says of the making of New England.
“Ezra Meredith produced my first two records,” he continues, “but prior to this one we started playing together and he joined Hearts of Oak. I think he and his brother were listing to a lot of Spiritualized at the time, and before I knew it my alt. country/folk songs were getting the dual electric guitar with fuzz and delay – and who knows what treatment.”
The results are songs like “Lovers Ain’t Easy,” a sweeping, swirling backdrop of airy, crisp textures sitting gently behind Wallace’s Dylan-esque voice, “Well Lit Highway,” a psychedelic rocker, and the burn of Joshua Tree’s desert sun on the title track.
“With ‘Lovers Ain’t Easy’ I struggled with writing that song,” recalls Wallace. “I wanted to capture the everyday struggle in a relationship. I don’t know if I did or not, but it was therapeutic for me anyway and I’m real happy with the recording. With ‘Well Lit Highway,’ it was another high for me, more on the playing side. To be able to rock out and not be too jammy. Kind of Crazy Horse, but more stoney.”
Entitled New England for numerous reasons, including the fact that Wallace is from there, the album chronicles tales of love, loss, and longing, a theme that commonly runs through Hearts of Oak songs, but is prevalent on this album, which Wallace attributes to the constant struggle he feels of being pulled back home.
“Whether it’s nostalgia or just the family getting older, sometimes I just see myself there, even though I love it here in Oregon. It’s Portland vs. Portland, I guess,” he smiles. “But, the easy answer of why I called the album New England is that it’s the title of one of the songs on the album and was one of the first songs during the recording process to get flushed out with a bigger sound. It provided a turning point. Up until that track it was standard Hearts of Oak fare with songs like ‘Used to it Now,’ ‘Lovers Ain’t Easy,’ and such. After finding that sound we were able to record tracks like ‘Tunnels’ and ‘Grey Riders’ with a more psychedelic sound. It just made it all more interesting.”
As he sings in “Lovers Ain’t Easy, “I think about you when I’m all alone, that’s how I pray,” the album finds a lot of solace in isolation, but also contains that longing for human interaction, evident by the drive of the rhythm section on a track like “Tunnels,” which plays it both subtle and sturdy, taking an easy-going, but dominant approach to the backdrop to Wallace’s seemingly morose delivery.
“I always write by myself and usually bring songs to record all finished,” Wallace says of the writing and recording process. “But, this time, I was open to ideas and willing to change a song for the sake of the recording.
“As for working in the studio, I’m a bit spoiled. But, I actually think it works better this way. For example, I always dreamed of making records all night, staying for days in the studio, but with the Deer Lodge I could work in shorter increments with Ezra, I’d say mostly 2 hour sessions on average. I’d come in with an idea or something in mind and more often than not that idea would come to fruition and we could leave the session stoked on the results and stay stoked on the project. We would then head up to the bar for a beer and feel good about ourselves.”
The result is a record that may be too spacey and out there for alt. country purists and too country-influenced for space-rock fans. But, for those that grew up listening to Dylan, Neil Young, American folk artist John Stewart, and other folk records from their parents’ vinyl collection, the record will hit the spot.
“I like to think I’m evoking those styles and there is a generation out there like me, who long for good music, good songs,” responds Wallace when asked where he feels New England fits in in today’s musical landscape. “That’s what I try for anyway.”
Regardless if it fits in with any current trend is not important to Wallace, who just wants the record to be heard by music fans like himself.
“With my first two records I was just happy with making records and ready to move on once I completed them,” he admits. “With New England, I want to stay there awhile and I hope folks will stay there with me.”
Now he hopes to hit stages throughout the Northwest and perform the songs live, giving fans yet another dimension to the songs that started out as just a guy with a guitar and took on a life of their own and became more grandiose than he had initially envisioned, but all for the better.
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