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Hank Dogs: Half Smile

REVIEW: Hank Dogs: Half Smile
8.10.2002 by Sean

Hank Dogs: Half Smile [spinART, 2002]

Three words? dawnsongs and nightcaps.

Dawn rises over the crest of a hill and spills into a valley, the hot orange glow flickers into cool yellow; it traces the buttercups and leaves of grass. This is Half Smile. With all of the confidence of lovers hand-in-hand, Hank Dogs have composed an album of gentle, acoustic songs - so utterly immersive that even in their softness they demand attention. The tracks fold out from themselves, layers of guitar-picking rolled out like felt, pattering percussion like the rhythm of a stream, and voices - high, rich, inviting. The North London accents are the familiar lilts of old friends, the harmonies spreading out like picnic blankets over a green field. The record is cohesive and whole, each airy, vibrant track an introduction to the next. It's absolutely beautiful music - soulful and not without spine. This isn't Enya buffoonery; it's folk rock passed down from Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention, Beth Orton jamming Nick Drake in a cottage with friends.

The disc opens with the slow guitar strums of "Same New", like eyelids fluttering open. Voices and finger-picking pick up intuitively, like a sudden, perfect realisation. It's wide-eyed optimism, perhaps ("All those twisted little tales / She's tired of telling anyway / Are missing the silver lining."), but there's a degree of wisdom here - the lingering feel of experience and regret. Themes of ignorance and innocence are addressed directly on "Torture", a duet of voices that sounds like a more traditional Kathryn Williams. Although the group owes a lot to the sixties, the arrangements feel as fresh as the work of the Kings of Convenience, and Hank Dogs' now-idiosyncratic sound is burdened with neither comeback-tour cheese nor the retro-chic of the Shins. The vocals - shared by Lily and the unlikely-named Piano - are delivered with a concentration and earnesty that are very reminiscent of, again, Beth Orton, or very early Joni Mitchell. "Half Smile" drifts downwards in a minor key, regret and change smouldering over the faded wail of an e-bow. The wistful "na na na na" is half-smiling, sad-smiling, music absolutely in tune with the sensations it tries to communicate.

Over twelve tracks, Hank Dogs never break from their style of guitar embroidery, although they navigate different trails - joy and sorrow, slow and fast. "Let Alone Me" is like the accelerated growth of a great tree, wood sprouting from the ground, curling in the air, creaking over the spritely singsong and a horseshoe clop. "Whole Way" proceeds with the grinning giddiness of youth, harmonies between friends: "Made her a promise, that is my word / Sell a lot of records, it's gonna work, it's gotta work." The freshness of the band's sound, the elegance of its singing, makes even the most trite statements true. When they sing:"Isn't it the greatest thing when someone / Understands you / Someone who can see you / Dulcimer the weetest soul," it sounds like a revelation, like a deep, secret bead of knowledge.

"Little Door" tumbles in slow-motion down a slope, regret like a cloud passing over the sun. On "Hollywood", Andy - heretofore restricted to backup vocals - takes centerstage, his ballad of Hollywood babes ("Watchin' all the stars...") recalling the work of John Martyn. As its stripped guitar sound smoothes to a close, "Rise" comes to life, a backwards guitar warble like a sky stripped clean, waiting for nighttime lights. A sad voice moves across a dimly-lit path, looking to the heavens, seeking answers and perhaps peace. Bass buzzes like a heartbeat. And then it's over.

Half Smile is beautiful album, and hearing it is like shaking off sleep after a long dream. Hank Dogs play new acoustic music of the sort that lived and was reborn, and despite the 1974 Educational Film aesthetic of their album cover, the group's songs are vivacious and bright - and one of the year's best recordings.

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