Harts of Oak, Birds & Bees

Harts of Oak, Birds & Bees

There’s a great, great, unassuming warmth and charm to Harts of Oak’s recent EP Birds & Bees; it’s almost like a kind of innocence, really, where the band thinks they’re okay but aren’t really sure beyond that. They sound like a band that honestly doesn’t realize how freaking good they are, and I can’t help but love that.

These three guys — when this was recorded, the band consisted of Alex Skalany, Matthew Seferian, and Atticus Lopez, although they’ve expanded somewhat since — don’t set out to blow any doors off, but rather just kind of shrug and dive into it, meandering gently through the low-key “Tuesday Morning,” with its up-close, downcast-yet-comfortable vocals and hesitatingly strummed/picked guitar. As intro songs go, it’s a slow-burner, but it still does the job admirably, bridging the gap between early Iron & Wine and Conor Oberst’s more restrained emo-pop (or maybe Western Keys’ sadly short-lived folk-gaze).

“Plan B” picks things up a bit, all jangly and droney and sweet, while remaining on the friendly, gentle end of the musical spectrum. The shy-boy vocals and driving-yet-gentle melody make me think of the best parts of Silver Scooter, a band that’s always one of my favorite musical touchstones. Then there’s “Heartbeats & Crowns,” which starts deceptively delicate and quiet but revs up (gently, naturally) to a jangly, sharp/shiny haze.

Somewhere towards the midpoint of “Heartbeats,” it hits me that while these guys are subtle and delicate, to be sure, it’s not laidback mellowness I’m hearing. There’s a cool, understated intensity to all of Birds & Bees, a feeling like there’s something bubbling below the surface, ready to explode out but held back out of fear, sense, or some combination of the two. Harts of Oak play like they’re biting their collective tongue, afraid of what’ll come out if they cut loose but imbuing everything with a restless, desperate energy nonetheless. And that’s no mean trick to pull off.

The cracks finally start to show on “Just Call it Global Warming,” with that carefully-crafted reserve slipping down a bit to let loose some of the bile and pain that’s built up behind. The band shoves the tentativeness of the previous tracks aside in favor of frankness and bitterness, and the hurt’s evident in both the vocals and belligerent guitar lines. It seems appropriate that the song is seriously reminiscent of Austinites The Eastern Sea (especially when it gets to the call-and-response bit, handclaps, and gang vocals), given that the Sea is great at this exact sort of thing: carefully building up tension to the point where the dam breaks and it all comes rushing out in a flood.

After that, things seem to get a bit more introspective. “Ghost,” in particular, reads like that quiet brooding that comes after a bitter, angry showdown with a (former?) lover; it’s uncertain and drifting, with a Death Cab-esque bed of sweet, just-distorted-enough guitars under the quiet vocals. I love the head-nodding, sleeping lushness of the track as it builds and builds towards a crescendo of thundering, crashing, utterly beautiful, sky-pointing spacerock.

“Nothing Else” closes the EP out by grabbing hold of all the gently-strummed guitars, soft vocals, and held-back feelings and throwing them headlong into a rough-edged country-folk song. The track speeds up briefly into a half-yodeling break before the song’s protagonist finally attempts to find some closure at the end of the relationship that’s chronicled throughout the EP. It’s uncertain and hopeful and, frankly, pretty awesome.

Overall, Birds & Bees is an unadorned gem of an EP, one that ranks up with the best things I’ve heard in recent years; it’s poignant and sweet and pained and careful, in all the most wonderful of ways.

[Harts of Oak are playing 1/5/11 at Mango’s, along with Fox & Cats, Robert Bradshaw Band, & The PJ’s.]
(self-released; Harts of Oak -- http://hartsofoak.com/; Harts of Oak (Facebook) -- http://www.facebook.com/hartsofoak)
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Review by . Review posted Thursday, January 5th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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