Some people wanted to see in Hemlock Smith a somewhat „cinematic“ band, whatever that means. Not even upset by that statement, these musicians from Lausanne, Switzerland, took it literally last year and embarked upon a journey that took them to medieval Sweden, recreating the film score for „Sir Arne’s Treasure“, a silent classic directed by Mauritz Stiller in 1919. It’s like they wanted to get this „movie misunderstanding“ out of their way, once and for all.
But not quite.
Because with „Keep the Devil out of Hillsboro“, their third record, Hemlock Smith prove that this experience also allowed them to refine the contours of their universe, between delicate songwriting and subtle, never showy arrangements. In one word, the band strenghten their musical identity, using all the varieties of style contained in modern folk music. They also reunite some of the shadows that influence their craft, from Tom Waits to Mark Hollis, from the classy country music of Lambchop to the intellectual, arty rock of dEUS.
That very successful blend shows itself first in the quality of the orchestrations. Spartan, composite or luxurious, the arrangements always seem to let the songs breathe while clothing them really fine. Accordion, banjo, violin or choir improve the tunes without choking them, sometimes drifting into Mingus territory (“Family Tree”), sometimes evoking a callous blues or a circus waltz that even Nick Cave would be proud of („Blink“ and „Dunkirk/Jerusalem“).
As for the most stripped down tracks from the album, they also benefit from this assured songwriting. Built around a breezy guitar or a muted piano, cruising with a delicate rhythm section, they are steered by the most particular voice of singer Michael Frei. Storyteller or crooner, Hemlock Smith’s vocalist adjusts his delivery from song to song, slowly lyrical, magnetic or restrained.
But, most importantly, he’s able to enhance the delicacy of the arrangements, like in the very mysterious „The North Sea“, a tribute to deceased scandinavian pianist Esbjörn Svensson, a tune whose watery melancholy doesn’t imitate this musician but, in a way, tenderly „describes“ him.
This track, even though it is a special one on the record, symbolizes quite perfectly the transformation achieved by this band on „Keep the Devil out of Hillsboro“, an album of accomplished craft, nourished from past experience and original in their own way. Full of humble beauty, the songs of Hemlock Smith shouldn’t suffer from any kind of cinematic comparison no more. Their own magnetism will now be enough to fuel our imagination