On July 22, 2014, via Jealous Butcher and Woodphone Records, Portland, Oregon-based Hook & Anchor – comprised of Blind Pilot’s Kati Claborn, Luke Ydstie, and Ryan Dobrowski, as well as old-time music veteran Gabrielle Macrae (of The Macrae Sisters), and Erik Clampitt (of Clampitt, Gaddis & Buck, Power of County) – released their self-titled debut, an adventurous yet accessible collection of eleven songs, stitched together by a reverence for the evolution of traditional American music and the strong individual voices that comprise the band.
Hook & Anchor is a story of lost songs finding a home. After a busy five years of touring with Portland-based band Blind Pilot, Claborn was sitting on a steadily growing pile of tunes. As chance would have it, long-time friend and collaborator Clampitt was looking for material and musicians to play a handful of gigs culminating in a show at the San Francisco Old-time and Bluegrass Festival. Songs were dusted off, friends were gathered, and the music that emerged had a voice and cohesion that immediately resonated with audiences and demanded to be more than a mere one-off.
Says Claborn, “When Erik pulled this group of songs and people together, the music came together so seamlessly. It didn’t take much to realize that what these songs needed was this band, and that was how they should be recorded.” The band consists of Claborn (banjo, guitar), Clampitt (electric guitar, pedal steel), Macrae (fiddle, banjo, guitar), Ydstie (bass, piano), and Dobrowski (drums).
In a project with multiple lead singers and broad stylistic scope, cohesion is not something to take for granted. On finding consistency Claborn comments, “Everyone in the band has a pretty unique musical voice and that specific combination of voices is going to come through no matter who penned a song or is singing lead. Gabrielle, Erik, and I have all spent some years steeped in the traditions of rural American music, so we all bring that along when we’re writing. While Ryan and Luke both come from more of a pop background, they have the wonderful ability to find just what a song needs, regardless of genre. We’ve all spent as much time as harmony singers as we have leads, so we can swap roles comfortably.”
Although generalizations don’t come easy, the album exists somewhere at the confluence of country, folk, and rock and roll, with every track pushing definitions across a new border. Opening with the immediately evocative pop of “Famously Easy,” which pays homage to The Byrds and Tom Petty, Hook & Anchor quickly establishes themselves as a band that puts a spin on standard Americana, delivering a hearty dose of rocking roots that draws you into Claborn’s rustic, powerful vocals. Wild Wind finds the band in the previously uncharted territory between a string-band burner and Fleetwood Mac. Concerning Spectral Pinching perhaps best exemplifies the energy of the band’s live sound, with fiddle and electric guitar charging ahead like a witch hunt. The album gains introspection from the wistful, spacious sway of Hazel Dell and the unadorned harmonies of Hammer, a sparse hymn to the desire to live a full, unfettered life.
The songwriters of Hook & Anchor manage to incorporate roots themes without succumbing to cliche. Lyrics and arrangements are informed and thoughtful, an evolution rather than a rehashing. This blend of old and new is apparent in “Light of the Moon,” a reworking of Buffalo Gals. The resulting story is a darker and perhaps more realistic picture of the times. “No, It’s Not,” a banjo-led ballad of near apocalyptic doom, shows that Hook & Anchor know how to play subtly and at low volume, but can build up a mountain of sound as well. Such moments of bombast are leavened by the easy gait of tracks such as “Tomorrow Night,” a sweet tribute to a drunken rodeo clown, and “Hard Times,” whose harmonically thorny verse gives way to rolling, sunny chorus.
Recorded in a primarily live setting with Type Foundry’s Adam Selzer at the helm, the album captures the excitement of the shows that pulled the band into being. “Anytime we could, we recorded in the same room to get that natural resonance that you just can’t get with overdubbing,” says Claborn. “The goal was to communicate honestly, to allow things that could be seen as flaws in some settings – a break in a voice, an unconventional note choice – to have a place in this recording. Those moments have always been my favorites in other people’s albums.”
What Hook & Anchor have created is an album that feels both classic and innovative, a debut whose every step is imbued with a raw, direct immediacy that is easy to fall into and hard to forget.
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