Originally published with Smile Politely on February 18, 2015.
The sophomore album, for any band, has to be equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, especially when it comes on the heels of a critically acclaimed debut album. Can the band find that elusive magic that wound its way into the first again? Will the second musically exceed its predecessor? Have they grown enough to not only keep their fan base, but also challenge it to keep listening?
There appears to be an endless number of questions involved, any one of which would cause the most self-assured musician doubt. Mere months into 2015 has already seen several prominent sophomore releases, including The Lone Bellow’s Then Came the Morning, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, and now Houndmouth’s Little Neon Limelight, which arrives March 17th.
Made up of frontman Matt Meyers on guitar, Kate Toupin on keys, Zak Appleby on bass and Shane Cody on drums, Houndmouth uses all four members vocally to create some killer harmonies. Those harmonies combined with the band’s energetic live shows drew enough industry attention to land them a record deal with Rough Trade Records in 2012, which in turn led to the highly lauded LP From the Hills Below the City in 2013.
From the Hills Below the City poised the Indiana-based band as a fierce addition to the alt-country scene. No need to be in, of, or from the South; Houndmouth’s gritty guitar riffs and strong rhythms proved that the Midwest was as solid a training ground as any for the genre. Including an electric array of songs, the album is at turns reminiscent of Shovels and Rope, at others of Deer Tick. The opening song “On the Road” sets off at a jaunty clip that wonderfully embodies alt-country’s stomp rock nature, while Toupin takes the lead on “Casino,” which is sing-along-inducing self-destruction at its finest.
What worked so well with the first album had a lot to do with the way songwriters Meyers and Toupin wrote heartfelt choruses that encouraged listeners to sing along. And that’s what they continue doing with Little Neon Limelight. It’s not enough to stand still and listen; these are songs that grab you in the gut and make you want to join in.
With Little Neon Limelight, Houndmouth takes a step forward, playing with their roots in some interesting ways. “Sedona,” the first single off the new album, keeps that alt-country backbone but adds in slight touches of pop and even psych rock. Meyers’ guitar moves away from its more gritty sounding moments that punctuated the first album, and toward a heavy, rock-edged feel that energizes. The first track proves Houndmouth excels at building a song with the best payoff coming at its very end, and reaffirming that some things are worth the wait.
In November, NPR debuted “For No One,” the second release from the new album. The pared down song, which boasts only a voice and a guitar, differs dramatically from the band’s typically lush vocal arrangements. Despite its quieter nature, it’s easy to see how “For No One” would bring a tangible hush to any crowd. On the record it feels as though Myers bends your ear to listen closer in the best possible way.
Without hearing the entire album yet, it’s hard to say exactly how Houndmouth will fare. But, based off “Sedona” and “For No One,” this is a defining moment for the band. If the album lays down the foundation for the live shows and those live shows become an entirely different beast altogether, then Houndmouth promises to deliver something worth watching as they embark on their 2015 North American tour.
Houndmouth launches that tour at The Highdive on Thursday. With their record release show in Louisville, KY already sold out, and plans to play national festivals like SXSW, Bonnaroo, and Hangout Fest, catching them in a more intimate setting like The Highdive promises to be a smart move. Your ears will thank you.