The Crotchety Wanderer stepped into yet more uncharted territory recently. This time it was a website called The Progressive Aspect. An album review in the News section had caught my eye. The album was called Black Bead Eye, which was an interesting title, and it was by How Far to Hitchin, an outfit I’d not heard of but which immediately reminded me of that other band bearing the name of a Hertfordshire town, Hatfield and the North.
I was only a few mouse steps from the local online music library so I took a diversion there to look them up. There was just one album listed under How Far to Hitchin; it had some lovely, almost monochrome, cover art and it was called Easy Targets. The video section of the library has this sampler, which serves to introduce both the art and the music:
Delving into the dusty bookshelves soon brought to light that How Far to Hitchin is a project by the musician and artist, Paul E Dews. He describes his style thus:
… I’m a bit prog in the same way that Everything Everything, Elbow, Radiohead and Midlake are a bit prog but sometimes I’m a bit Jazzy, a bit punky, a bit poppy and a bit electro in the same way that Massive Attack, Blur, Young Knives, XTC and John Grant are …
If that’s not enough to qualify for an entry in Crotchety Man’s learned journal I don’t know what is.
To date HFtH has released two albums. The most recent is Black Bead Eye, which is fully reviewed on The Progressive Aspect and can be streamed from the project’s website, but here I’m going to focus on Easy Targets from 2017 because I haven’t found any other review of it and all tracks are available through Spotify and YouTube, as well as the project website.
The track list looks like this:
- Resistance Is Futile
- Our Friend Is In The Meadow
- The Peacocks of Birkby
- Grief Mining
- Flowers From Burma
- Sick Little Monsters
There’s a strong hint of originality in those titles, which is good, but it’s not so strong that it promises to blow your socks off. That’s good, too, because we can start listening with very few preconceived ideas about what’s on offer.
The opening track has distinct echoes of Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke as the vocalist intones a message of drug-induced helplessness over a gently pulsing bass riff. Track 2 takes us abruptly into the realm of art-folk with mandolin, folk flute and a slow melody sitting prettily on a picnic blanket woven from orchestral strings, lightly fuzzed guitar tones and delicate percussive sounds. Next comes an angry outburst of pop song synths aimed at all those celebrities and politicians intent on climbing the greasy poll [sic].
You know I’m talking to you,
But you don’t hear a word I say.
You’ve got one eye on my face,
The other on much bigger prey.
Gladhander, gladhander, five-fingered snake,
Triple-A wannabe, rich little fake.
After that petulant outburst there’s a much more detached look at the divisions that plague modern British society. The narrator watches as colourful, prim, middle class ‘peacocks’ drift through the flotsam and jetsam of their stagnant communities, neither seeing nor caring two honks about the drab and dishevelled ‘mattresses’ that society has dumped in the fly-tips of the inner city estates. But that bleak message is offset by a beautifully constructed mix of finger-style guitar, flute, strings and fretless bass guitar.
The depressing theme continues with Collateral, which describes an unspecified horror:
It burnt our lungs and our eyes were cooked
But at least the computer graphics looked …
… so cool!
And then we meet a man who couldn’t cope when all the demons in the universe came knocking on his door. He used to have a wife and family; he used to have a job to do. But now we must be careful because just one push too far could make him fall into himself and not get out again. There is a little madness in the music, too, but it hovers in the background creating a constant tension in the listener.
So we move on. Perhaps there’s comfort in the afterlife. Or are those seductive spiritualists all charlatans mining personal grief for rewards in the material world? The lyrics suggest HFtH doesn’t give much credence to the ouija boards and spirit guides. And, like the ectoplasm of the seance, the music is strangely lacking in substance, too.
But take heart. The eighth track is the most enchanting song on the album. The singer is sitting in the dark, hiding from himself. He is hiding because the one he loves is full of pain and blind with tears. She needs something he can not give and he is utterly helpless to make amends.
Following that quite exquisite expression of helplessness we are plunged abruptly into a deep slough of disappointment in the shape of the candy floss pop of Flowers from Burma. Even the lyrics have lost their edge. “It’s like walking through a minefield, this thing called love”, croons the singer. But the voice spills out from a fuzzy 1940s microphone, robbing it of all conviction.
The pop theme continues as HFtH complains about his neighbours, but this time his words are amusingly acerbic.
Her culinary skills
Don’t deliver any thrills
Yeah, she’s in a unique class.
The odours are disgusting
Her cooking smells like something
That was just evacuated from a very, very sick cat’s arse.
The last two tracks take us back to HFtH‘s strengths. Sick Little Monsters rails against those who seek out gruesome videos as a form of entertainment. The message in Secateurs is more difficult to understand. I think it describes the aimlessness of ordinary lives. They are both art rock songs that testify to Paul E Dews’ impressive talents as composer, arranger, producer and lyricist. And they wrap up the album with a “To be continued …” footnote that leaves us intrigued to find out more.