If the Killers and Devendra Banhart had a baby, and then that baby wrote skillful acoustic pop music, the result might sound something like Hurricane Bells. The project of Steve Schiltz (singer and guitarist for New York band Longwave), Hurricane Bells’ first album is titled Tonight is the Ghost, and one gets the feeling that the writer felt the ghosts of long nights past about him as he composed. In keeping with the creepy theme, Schiltz’s project has gained attention after a b-side entitled “Monsters” was selected for the soundtrack of the second installment in the Twilight series, New Moon. But this album is more about haunting than it is biting; it’s an amalgam of quiet and loud, fast and slow, melancholy and cautious optimism.
According to Hurricane Bells’ Web site, Schiltz “wrote, played, recorded, and mixed every note himself,” and his attention to detail shows in the careful play of rhythm with lyric, guitar mixing with drums, voice over backing. Many of the tracks feature some complex, multi-level sound layering. On “Darkness Is So Deep”, for example, dark lyrics (“the darkness is so deep/ you gotta find your own way out”) mix with a quicker tempo and more upbeat backing to create an interesting mixture of ups and down.
Another strong track is “This Year”, which reminds me very deeply of the Killers having a quiet moment. The track starts with Schiltz’s voice nearly bare, rising gently over a little guitar. As with other tracks, additional backing instruments file in one at a time, sneaking in to fill out the sound bit by bit. Around two minutes in, when the sound opens up fully, the resemblance to Hot Fuss is eerie. And yet Hurricane Bells make a case by being a bit more thoughtful and steady-handed than the Killers. His music builds gradually and almost seems to evolve as you listen. Schiltz is heavy on the acoustic guitar and the high-pitched backing chorus (trust me, it works), lending a thoughtful, summery air to his music.
Schiltz can also play slower songs with some success. “Tonight I’m Going To Be Like A Shooting Star” is quiet, thoughtful, and meandering in a pleasant way that brings to mind some of Banhart’s more contemplative work. “The Winters in New York” is another slower song, somewhat dominated by backing drums and thus sonically a bit forgettable. This is unfortunate, because, upon closer listen, the lyrics are darkly poetic, with Schiltz imagining escaping New York’s icy winters for a new start in the West. I wish this song had touched me more, but the sound melts into the background too easily. It’s as though the wintry songs freeze up his music’s charm, somehow. Similarly, “The Cold Has Killed Us” (seems parts of this album were composed in February) sticks to the sounds around it and doesn’t make a strong impression.
Warmer and more notable tracks include “This Is A Test”, a more upbeat song with a bigger pop influence. It still manages to maintain an airy vibe, though; Schiltz sounds as though he’d be more at home playing a smallish crowd in a dark room, whiskey in hand, than he would be on TRL. Later track “Crocodile” is a shaker, a guitar-heavy instrumental with a solitary whistler in the background, which quickly gives way to the delightfully twangy “Freezing Rain”. The vocals on that track are particularly reminiscent of Hot Fuss, with a thoughtfully modern emotion behind them. And yet, the mixing makes the whole thing sound fresh and special.
Closer “Tenterhooks” opens with a charming background of night noises, laid over with a striking solo guitar rhythm that gradually blossoms into the larger melody of the song. It’s a meditative instrumental piece that evolves into a small, lovely soundscape before evaporating into the quiet again, and is, without a question, my favorite piece on the album.
Schiltz is a thoughtful, compelling songwriter who seems to have a lot on his mind. He’s working with sounds like those we’ve heard before, but putting them in new orders and pretty patterns that strike the ear as new and yet familiar, refreshing but still comfortable. This is an album that yearns for a summer night, with all the windows open to the breeze and a cool tumbler of liquor in hand. If you (like me) are toughing out a cold Midwestern winter right now, at least you can throw this baby on the speakers and pretend.