Although I pretty much agree with the line (which I think came from Elvis Costello) that an artist has twenty years to make his first record and six months to make his second, I generally don't enjoy reviewing debut albums. Unless you’re Liz Phair or the Clash, chances are it’s not going to be your best work. People evolve as musicians as they play longer and bands are able to fully flesh out how they want to sound. Having said that, I’m pleased that I enjoyed H is for Hellgate self-titled debut release, a young pop/rock band from Seattle with tons of potential.
The band is basically Jamie Henkensiefken’s, as she has sole songwriting and engineering credits. She’s obviously a very talented musician (she also played all of the instruments when she recorded the H is for Hellgate demo last year shortly after moving to Seattle). At work here, H is for Hellgate almost appears to be two separate bands. The first is a rock band that uses lots of different timing changes and is driven by guitars, primarily. This band reminds me of Silversun Pickups or Metric. The second H is for Hellgate is a vocal-based pop band in the vein of Death Cab for Cutie. Or, I guess since this is a female-fronted band, I mean Rilo Kiley.
It goes without saying that I prefer the former.
The first song, "Belt of Lights" is my favorite. It shows off the range of the band with lots of great guitar work and tempo changes on top of Henkensiefken’s nice harmonies. "This Is How We Take it Offline" is another similar song that also works very well. Henkensiefken speaks the vocals through much of the song over light instrumentation and heavy drum track (a la Nada Surf’s first single "Popular").
“I can’t tell you anything you haven’t already heard from Ben Gibbard by now” she begins the track "The Next 50 Winters," arguably the best of the softer songs on this album. It begins (and ends) with a soundtrack of heavy rain, but that gives way to an acoustic guitar and harmonies, and of course, let's Henkensiefken's wry wit come through lyrically. Incidently, you can hear this track on the TIG on KEXP podcast from February of this year.
Overall, while the record is far from flawless, it's a welcome, quirky addition to the Northwest oeuvre of indie-rock. H is for Hellgate is in the throes of a big-time US tour, ending on April 28th in Spokane, WA. See if they're coming to a town near you.