If given a featureless, nameless Holopaw album, you might never guess the band rolls six members deep. Musically, there’s too little happening on the tracks to merit a sextet, the empty spaces between drum fill and acoustic guitar strums are cavernous and deep, broken only by the tenor vibrato of John Orth. Guitar parts float in and out, basslines appear with the same regularity as keys—which is to say infrequently and only when Holopaw dares to rise above a muted roar.
And without the indicative title of their latest album, you might never know that Academy Songs Volume 1 is a lyrical concept record set in fictional boy’s academy. The lack of recognition of the thematic concept, lyrical or otherwise, rests squarely on the shoulders of Orth’s delicate, dynamic vocal lines. Orth is an unusual singer in a formative way in Holopaw; it’s hard to imagine the band without his presence in front of the mic. He’s got a distinctive voice that’s at once recognizable, terrifically flawed and glacially pristine. Not as distinctive as a J. Mascis, but as unique as Dan Bejar or Issac Brock. And he’s able to turn alliterative phrases like “the discotheque isn’t open, they’re just testing the lights” and weighty proclamations like “oh Calvary, oh Calvary, we’ve lost another pilgrim at sea” into effortless tossaways that meld with other instruments.
Holopaw came around at a time when alt-country was emitting a death rattle for the 14 th time (i.e., 2003). Since no one could put a name on their acoustic brand of hushed space pop, they weren’t given their due — despite their first two albums being released on Sub Pop and recording with Issac Brock as Ugly Casanova. Academy Songs isn’t going to do much to burn off the fog of confusion that Holopaw emits, though Academy Songs is more powerful than their previous LPs, but only because drummer Ryan Quinney refuses to lay idly by while songs like “Dirty Boots (He Don’t)” and “Diamonds” threaten to drown in soft rock ineptitude. Instead, tracks like the hyper-vigilant “Golden Sparklers” and the album climax “Infidels” are loaded with frantic moments of wild guitars and crashing cymbals where the band actually sounds like a loaded six-piece instead of a backing band for Orth’s bedroom tapes.
Orth is opting for something grander than another run-of-the-mill indie record on Academy Songs. That much comes out in the decipherable snippets of lyrics that you can catch and the repeated refrains that run through the eleven tracks: “we are the virgin snow,” “the lights of the discotheque,” and multiple references to diamonds, bedfellows and Calvary, which may or may not be the fictitious academy’s name. The conceits are subtle and Holopaw won’t give you a map or even a flashlight to find your way. But getting lost in Academy Songs feels like midnight, teenage game of capture the flag in the woods: oppressively frightening but exhilarating and wistful. And when it ends, and you retreat back home, everything still lingers.