I found out about the Wonderhills, a “five-piece acoustic outfit”  which calls themselves “pop” but doesn’t seem to have a single digital rudiment to their music, because they were doing a show or three with my beloved northern-Indiana Matchsellers (the equally bluegrass-oriented, whereas the Wonderhills hail from “Southern Indiana”). Right away on their eponymous debut, which came out in March, I hear heavy banjo and fiddle presence, so calling this music “pop” might be appropriate if the stereotypical “Indiana” existence professed in The Royal Tenenbnums were actually microcosmic of the entire nation. (In reality, this place has a huge inferiority complex and makes a concerted effort not to be too “folksy,” which typically ends up backfiring in the form of excessive adherence to least-common-denominator corporate American culture.)
So in other words, the Wonderhills are just an incredible breath of fresh air for me, an ardent fan of the Heartless Bastards and Califone. In a sense, this is traditional Americana fare emanating from these lower-Midwesterners, the banjo presence probably being a bit too scant to warrant a “bluegrass” tag. “Spokane” (in which the band rhymes the title with “cocaine”), though, engages in some stupefyingly loud and visceral drum work, before “Given Enough Time” basically reverts back to exact approximation of the Blues Brothers in “Rawhide,” as far as the percussion work goes.
“Your Name in Verse” opens as a lugubrious ballad with a simple but sturdy banjo riff and seems to proceed as just that, albeit incorporating some refreshingly “pop”-sounding acoustic guitar (this still isn’t exactly Bruno Mars we’re listening to here, mind you). Ryan Heimlich promises in melodic vocal that he’s going to “Write a book about the time we kissed,” but through this music you realize he’s already doing just that. Credit the band, too, with not falling into a common trap in the wake of Califone’s popularization — flooding the mix with just a crutching amount of banjo. The spare mixes here, featuring light fiddle and acoustic guitar over simple but proud drum lines, allow the songs to frolic along with a refreshing lightness, as if Heimlich and company are exhibiting enough confidence in their big-picture songwriting to let the ceremony shine upon that aspect fully, in particular. “Little Lulie” takes the tempo up a notch with more fiddle-heavy quasi-bluegrass, boasting a memorable chorus: “Dig a hole / Dig a hole in the meadow / Just to lay your body down”, although the singer’s voice here can come across as just a SLIGHT bit amateurish, like a self-conscious everyman who thinks singing is weird, rather than a master devoting his heart fully to it. But really, that’s about the only timidity on this whole album — “Haircut” comes in modestly tempoed but whole-hearted, with just enough of a skewed phrasing sense to absorb the listener in an entrancing labyrinth of songwriting. Then, the vocals and banjo dissipate and, true to form on this album, we get a little respite of thinking time over gentle fiddle playing and light rhythm, reminding that “reflective” aspects of music can be entirely transitive, meaning transposing themselves on a listener active in just that very activity.