Favorite Local Album of 2014-”The Filthier Things” by Hasty Escape

There actually wasn’t much of a debate over my favorite album of the year. I have to admit that when Max Knouse gave me the Hasty Escape album on Halloween within about a week I knew that it was going to be my December feature for JAVA and that it was almost assuredly going to end up as my favorite album of the year. Up until that point, I was sure Emby Alexander had that slot hands down. I listened to this album nearly every day for three months straight, I still listen to it a couple times a week. I simply love everything about it. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t have one of these songs play in my head–not a day. Below you can read the unedited review of The Filthier Things from the December issue of JAVA as well as listen to the album. Enjoy.

I wanted to finish the year with a really great album, but they seemed to be few and far between. Most, it seems, had been released earlier in the year and the contenders for December left me nonplussed.  Out of nowhere, Max Knouse from The Hill In Mind contacted me and asked me if I wanted to hear an album by the band he fronted, Hasty Escape. I was welcoming anything at that point and I also had some rare time to spare. I was immediately glad I had been writing about THIM, because that’s how Knouse knew me and I was glad I had spare time that day so I could give it a listen right then. The Filthier Things is the debut album from Hasty Escape and it is one of the most enjoyable, affable and listenable albums of the year–it hits me straight in the comfort zone and makes my soul feel good every time I spin it. There is the perfect  blend of Americana and indie rock found here,  it somehow treads on Gram Parsons idea of “Cosmic American Music” that neither dwells too far into the realm of rock’n'roll, nor too far into country, but just sits about right for you to breathe it in on a lazy afternoon and love the hell out of it.

Hasty Escape is Max Knouse on vocals and guitar, Matt Ventre on guitar and vocals, Alex Kyhn on bass and vocals, and Ryan Anthony on drums. Incidentally, or not so much, the album was recorded by Kyhn in his guest house. “I’ve noticed Alex pretty much compliments any musical situation,” Knouse said.  “We’re also lucky to have him as a tasteful engineer and producer. I think everyone in the band is sort of on the same page with Alex in terms of production aesthetic of trying to keep the sounds we get clear, even stark, avoiding coloring them post-tracking if possible.” I was amazed that this was recorded essentially at home, because I was sure it was done at one of the local studios due to the crisp clarity. “The medium of digital recording isn’t as sexy as analogue in some ways, but it naturally does naked and intimate well I think,” Knouse said. He is not wrong and there seems to be a natural warmth found here with guests ranging from Joshua Hill and Jon Lang for group vocals to Shea Marshall on B3/Piano and Dan Blaker on trumpet.

The first thing that struck me, mere seconds into the album was the voice of Max Knouse.  At first there is a Neil Young vibe to his voice, but it’s tempered by a definite Todd Rundgren coloring–throw in a dash of Gram Parsons with a touch of Ryan Adams and you get the idea. I even checked this with a friend I consider a superior authority on music to me and his first response was “Rundgren”, it was my own sanity check. Whatever combo it may be, Knouse has one of my favorite voices in the local music scene and he uses it to great effect on this debut album. It lends a lot to the entirely early 70s vibe going on, when music mellowed out as many of the bands seemed to be collectively recovering from a half decade hangover from the 60s. I have yet to be able to put into words the comfort and joy that this album brings to me, it’s like the musical equivalent of that twilight state where you are enjoying the warmth in your blankets, knowing that it is cold beyond them–it is a perfect album for Autumn and Winter, a perfect Sunday morning album for sipping coffee outside and watching the world go by without concern beyond the moment.

Photo by Josh Loeser

Right from the start the title track opens the album with a vibe that feel like this is a great lost album from 1972. Whether it is the combination of Knouse’s stunning vocals or the amazing guitar line courtesy of Ventre, it is difficult to say, but “Filthier Things” immediately pulls you into its clutches. Lyrically, the song is a pastiche of seemingly stream of conscious poetry, that somehow evokes Autumnal thoughts and ideas of free floating romanticism: ” Goin’ out to find the filthier things, The deadening glare of the fall air and all the new hues of dead leaves, So let’s fall together, And watch it bring the color to your eyes.” The music box loop that starts the album as well as the musical theme of the song, also seems to reoccur in the false stop that extends into a synth laden instrumental coda which leads seamlessly into the next song. It’s a hell of an amazing beginning and it’s why I kept listening when Knouse handed over the album.  “American Cheese” perfectly continues the feeling and warmth of the opener and the previous songs coda serves as an intro, melting the two together. Here Knouse’s “Rundgren” vocal becomes more apparent and it is beautifully displayed. At this point though the entire band shines through completely, whether it is Ventre’s guitar, Anthony’s consistent drumming, Khyn’s subtly perfect pass or any of the other elements  found here. It was at this point in my first listening that I had to ask, “What the fuck have I found here?” As Americana as it is Indie Rock as it is Psychedelic, it’s a perfect song, no matter what. While the song comes off with such a tone of melancholy sweetness, the lyrics admit a bit more darkness, ” You and I will fight again,To be friends, We’re squinting down at our awkward trends, All my words are really lures, Won’t you show me what swims, And I will catch a flick with you.” It speaks a lot about the temporary nature of life and the movements that rush through it.

If the first songs have you in Hasty Escape’s thrall, you will gladly follow them down the Americana trail to “Ain’t Really That Bad”. It’s the first song to feature some weeping steel guitar and Knouse’s vocals are superb. Once more the band is mindblowing in their treatment of the song and in this case it is a tender treatment with piano, acoustic guitars, soft drumming and an even softer bass. The story of an eternal optimist who will not apologize for their outlook on life no matter how bad things seem to get for them, who in the end changes the viewpoint of the family member telling the tale. “Overgrown, Looking Mean (I Know)” is the first song that makes me think of Ryan Adams, not because they sound like him, but something about the songwriting and the construction reminds me of the heights of his career and the best of Whiskeytown.  The drumming and percussion of Anthony is the secret star on the track, but so too are the lyrics, which reveals the story of someone who is gifted and has drifted from his hard working family, blessed with success  found in his talents and his artistry, with a reflection of guilt or sorrow associated with this circumstantial fate.

“Oh Lazy Eye” was, upon first listen, my least favorite track yet, after a few dozen more listens it has become one of my favorites on the entire album. It is the slowest song on the album, which explains my early disfavor of it, but it is perfect as the final song of the first half of the album in that regard. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful songs on the album. For the record, yes that is Knouse singing the deep intro to the track (I asked, convinced it was Ventre). The construction of the song alone is what makes it so great, from the harmonies to steel guitar, to the fantastic bridge that defines the entire song, to the loping and smooth rhythm section–it’s simply perfect. I have no idea what the song is about and I don’t want to characterize it incorrectly, but just listen and you can come to your own conclusions.  Another slow number and beautiful piece at that is “Broken-In Heart” which bears the deep impression of Southwest on its sleeve, with steel guitar, stunning brushed drums and the wonderful addition of trumpet, the song screams of heartbreak. If there is a song to slow dance to on the album, it is this one, it meets the ear like a dirge crossed with a waltz and the effect is astounding.  The opening lyrics tell you everything you need to know: “Witness the breaking of a heart, Watch it shatter reeling from the blow, yes but, Just like some worn-out shoes of leather , Most of these hearts, they get broken-in slow.” Beautiful.

Photos by Laura Marks

After the centerpiece of those two beautiful slow burners, the upbeat pace of “30 Sec Rule” seems downright explosive.  It seems to be as much about the redemption of new love or even rebound love as it is tied into the metaphor of songwriting. The lyrics are incredibly clever and while the entire album is drenched in intelligence there is something special about the wordplay and metaphors found here, when an interloper makes a suggestion: ” She came around she said “can you make it poppier?”, I’m sorry m’am, But poppies they makes my heart sleepy and this song’s really just a lot of fluff you see, The next line has to kind of rhyme with the one that it proceeds.” It makes me smile ever damn time.  It’s straight to the hootenanny for “Bird Callin” and this screams of Flying Burrito Brothers era Gram Parsons.  This is simply one of my favorite tracks on the album, a jaunty little number with more intelligent lyrics about death, rebirth, reincarnation and the cycles of seasons and life. It is so great in its simplicity, but with lines like “We go’ rise up out this dirt round half past spring, And if fourteen years taught us the wrong cicada song, Well alright, ok, for now but not for long” it just makes me smile endlessly.

The album finishes with a duo of ballads. The first of these is “20 Cent” , which a parallel tale of separate lovers as much as it does estranged fathers.  There are allusions to both pay phones and postage stamps. The metaphors and stories are parallel in that there is distance between all involved that may be mended superficially with phone calls and letters, but ultimately, there is vast perception of nothingness. Yet it is in that, that an entire lexicon of meaning is found. The finale of the album is “Callin Me On” and it is a near eight minute epic that explores every aspect of Hasty Escape’s musical character through its various movements. It starts of slow with almost a hymnal tone, filled with lyricism that seems almost biblical, Knouse shows off his vocal range efficiently in the first two minutes, and the band is at their best.  It is mournful tone that is set until you get three minutes in and then the sound that began the album, the vibe, returns and we once again return to the Young/Rundgren sound that warms the heart, filled with harmonies and backing vocals, guitars swarm in a couple minutes later to rock out, it takes shape like a pocket symphony.  The title is echoed in the vocals again and again at the end until we are brought to the music box loop that began the album and as it ends, so it begins again and again.

I’m not sure yet, but this eleventh hour miracle of an album may well be my favorite album of the year–and if it’s not, it’s damned close. It is certainly the album I want to hear when I want to get back to being myself, thinking my thoughts, and just feeling alright. Pure blissful brilliance.