Concept albums offer up one hell of a tricky proposition. They are essentially the 7-10 split of music, where artists generally have to choose between having an album with artistic authenticity, or one that actually sounds good. Now, take that slippery slope and multiply it six-fold and you can have a hint of the battle Casey Crescenzo and company are facing with their now-unfurling multi-act epic – the story of The Dear Hunter.
For those of us who took the time to listen to, and appreciate, Act I: The Lake South, The River North EP, chances are you were taken a little off guard by just how damn solid the release was. Treated to thirty-nine meaty minutes of music-set storytelling, the listener is easily swept away into the parallel universe in which the work resides. And to be sure, most of us enjoyed every single second of it. While good for the EP itself, the fidelity of the release gave rise to some pretty inflated expectations for the then-upcoming LP. So, one main question still remains – how does it stack up? The answer is “brilliantly,” as Act IIshatters all existing expectations and blows even its EP and demo predecessors out of the water.
If there is one thing that The Dear Hunter does well, especially on Act II, it is in the creation of a diverse, varied sonic quilt that meshes so many different genres and eclectic musical influences. These range from the O Brother Where Art Thou-ish ragtime of “The Oracles on the Delhi Express,” the toe-tapping showpop of “Smiling Swine” (which also tosses in an a capella bridge and gospel-steeped home stretch), or “Blood of the Rose,” which draws heavily upon European classical pieces to paint its scant, haunting landscape. If sheer multiplicity does not seal the deal on its own, then it is equally worth noting how the band takes longstanding stereotypes about song styles, and turns them on their heads. To illustrate, check out “Red Hands” and see if you ever thought bleeding-heart emo could be so intelligent and majestic. Or likewise, scope “Dear Ms. Leading” and ask yourself if you believed blistering progressive tracks could be driving rather than sedated, and still contain barn-burning hooks while maintaining the continuity of the album’s story. In the end, while these descriptors might make the record sound fragmented and disjointed, the opposite could not be more true.
Strong as an entire album, Act II still stands up under scrutiny of its subcomponents. Instrumentally, The Dear Hunter has always piled it on thick, with plenty of layers of the good stuff. And there is little change here strategically, but rather, the album works as an evolution of the sound hinted at on the EP, aided of course by the decision to make TDH a full-band act. Expect to healthy doses of guitars, classical strings, pianos, shakers, horns, and plenty more contributors by which less creative artists are eternally intimidated.
Still on the fence? Well, what if I told you that vocally, Casey’s progress is marked, and is perhaps the biggest improvement since the EP? I only say it because it is true. Crescenzo has benefited from a generous serving of newfound self-confidence, and his vocals absolutely rip now. Gone are the shades of sheepish flatness. Casey now sings with a palpable passion, and in doing so, injects his songs with a stronger pulse – likely a benefit from the semi-autobiographical nature of the tunes. Regardless, whatever the driver, the voice on the LP has been transformed to where Casey can carry a song under his closed-eyes, clenched-fist soul bearing delivery (“Where the Road Parts”). So, to the naysayers that thought this impossible, I hear the crow here is delicious.
Overall, The Dear Hunter’s Act II, is all at once a great continuation of a solid allegorical foundation, a dramatically engaging work of art, and an aurally gratifying soundscape. Every one of the demos for the album has been so strikingly revamped to the point where someone would be downright nuts to yearn for the prior versions, and the new songs are just as strong, and integrate effortlessly into the work’s storybook flow. Records like this just prove how great of a year 2007 has been for music, and helps to further assert Casey Crescenzo’s gang as one of the most inspiring and original acts in the scene today. So now, only one question remains. How long until Act III?