Words like “stunning” and “gorgeous” just seem to roll off the tongue when listening to Hinterlands, a folk duo from New Zealand, whose debut EP is nothing short of amazing. From the first listen, I couldn’t help but be stunned by their harmonies, songwriting, and overall “it factor.” If these guys were on that popular TV show, they’d have all the chairs turning. Hopefully some day they’ll be on a stage near me, so I can hear this gorgeous music in person. Put it this way – it’s a four-song EP and probably two of the songs will appear on my end of the year “top song” list. Yep, that good.
So what do they sound like? Heaven. Okay, that might be a bit much. It’s beautiful fingerpicking guitars with easy-yet-powerful vocals over deceivingly-complicated melodies. When listening, it’s easy to think “awww… how nice” but what’s really happening in these songs is much more complicated. The layered harmonies are complex; the melody patterns are equal parts pop and a sort of unique “folk” flavor. It just all comes together. You have to check out Matthew Horne and Christian Tjandrawinata.
From the outset the band reminded me of Penny and Sparrow (another folk duo that I love dearly). The essence and feeling of “The Shore” was exactly what I love to encounter with a finger-picked folk acoustic track. It’s not overproduced. The voices are piercing in the right way. “So don’t leave me here alone.” It’s a lover’s cry for support and reciprocation. We’ve all been there. The metaphors are strong with this one.
The second track “Winding Roads” is easily a song of the year nominee. Easily. It has everything you want in an incredible track. It’s appropriately epic, but with a sense of still being down to earth. The lead vocal is powerful and convicting, allowing for the dynamic harmonies (literally dynamic, quieter at the beginning, then filling the track on the chorus) to really MAKE the song. They blend like the old country band Alabama, but with a raw authenticity about them. As cliché as “winding roads” might be as a literary and songwriting device, this song still preserves a sense of genuine adventure, fear, excitement, and… well… the complicated unknown. It’s infectiously great.
“Follow” has a bit more of a driving rhythm. A little more U2 than Bob Dylan, it’s not the first sound you’d think of when it comes to folk music. However, their structure and performance isn’t fully “rock” music and certainly isn’t pop. It’s ultimately a track about devotion to another person. “I will follow you…” It’s about endurance and love and the complexities of real “dirty and broken” relationships.
The all-too-final track (can you tell I didn’t want the album to end?) is the other song of the year nominee, “Could Be.” I’m a sucker for tracks full of hypothetical worlds and situations anyways. The ethos captured in this song – of an unknown possible reality of what could be – is fascinating to me. The melody has a pure folk sound. With a little heavier strings in the background to fill the track, it seems a bit more highly produced than the first two tracks, but it somehow (magically?) preserves a sense of accessibility and ordinariness. I get the sense that these guys could pull this off with a guitar, a mandolin, and a few stools at the local coffee shop. They’re just pure talent.
I could not be a bigger fan of a band I just found. I could not be a bigger supporter of any sound I’ve discovered recently. In fact, I’m not sure I know many people (that read this site) who wouldn’t like this album. Fans of Penny and Sparrow, the Civil Wars, or even Simon and Garfunkel really ought to give this album a chance. I deeply, deeply hope it’s a sign of much more music to come from this immensely talented duo.