May 16, 2009: The Hunches, Exit Dreams

I’m a little perturbed by the entry of lo-fi bands into the loudness war over the past couple of years. Times New Viking and Wavves, two fairly high-profile lo-fi bands of late, seem to derive their sonic qualities less from miniscule recording budgets than from redlined overcompression. Open up, say, “So Bored” or “My Head” in Garageband and the song’s waveform will resemble a single oblong block, identical to tracks by Flaming Lips and Metallica and other major-label acts whose recent albums have been held up as offenses to listenability. It could be that that’s just how those albums were originally recorded instead of how they were mastered, but there’s something about the trebly harshness of the sound that makes me suspect that mastering-induced clipping is to blame. That’s why, despite having some decent tunes, I can’t listen to TNV and Wavves albums for more than a track or two before wanting to listen to something else.

Lo-fi needn’t equal unlistenable. Case in point: Exit Dreams, a gnarled slab of brainpan-rattling garage-rock that, despite remaining faithful to a genre that often prides itself on being musically and sonically one-dimensional, not only never wears out its welcome but is actually one of the best-sounding albums of its kind I’ve heard in a long time. On their previous, more conventionally produced albums, The Hunches seemed little more than backbenchers on In The Red’s roster; Exit Dreams ought to elevate them to the level of first-stringers, with a messier, more vibrant sound that pokes holes in garage’s wall of sound to expose the larger, airier spaces that surround it.

While dirty fuzzbomb guitars, clanging reverb, and a singer whose hollers and screams can barely heard above the din are required elements for any garage band, The Hunches have thankfully grown out of using that formula to merely bash out two-minute blitzkriegs. Instead they channel their short attention span disorder into song structures and arrangements that are&;mdash; well, words like complex or elaborate may be overstating the case somewhat, unless compared with the average Jay Reatard track. “Actors” kicks off the album with a queasy, lurching riff that caveman-stomps its way through about two-thirds of its running time before breaking into a noisy motorik sprint to the finish; “Deaf Ambitions”‘ opening tantrum barely lasts a minute before dissolving into a drowsy, dreamy bit of strummy (semi-)acoustic psychedelia.

While there’s nothing wrong with their more straightforward songs (“Your Sick Blooms” and “Pinwheel Spins” pack as many hooks as busted amplifier parts), my favorite tracks end up being more laid-back ones: “Not Invited”‘s sunny jangle is tempered by its stumbling, bleary, morning-after hangover feel; “Fall Drive” sounds uncannily like the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” reincarnated as a thunderstorm; and the epic “Unraveling” sports a similarly damp, drizzly vibe that can’t help but remind me of the Hunches’ hometown of Portland. It’s a shame that Exit Dreams is supposedly the Hunches’ final album— they’re reportedly calling it quits after a handful of West Coast shows in June— but they’re going out on the kind of high note that any band ought to be proud of.

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