This sophomore effort finds the still young band strutting as confidently as ever, relaxed and sure of themselves even as they play a well-worn brand of music.
Houndmouth emerged fully formed with debut record From the Hills Below the City. Right out of the gate, they possessed the chops and swagger of seasoned vets. With their roots firmly planted in wistful Americana, this southern Indiana quartet exuded a rambling spirit. Their music evoked the vibe of dive bars and greasy spoons, of country roads and close shaves. Their mix of roots and rock felt vintage yet timeless, as though the band was a collaboration of four old souls who sang through fresh, young voices. They caught the attention of certain tastemakers, appearing on late shows and getting SPIN and Esquire to both deem them a “must-see” at Lollapalooza. And yet, amongst the din of so many slicker indie folk and alt-country acts out there, Houndmouth hasn’t quite earned the widespread recognition they probably deserve.
In that way, Little Neon Limelight is an appropriate title for their follow-up album. The band embraces their obscure jukebox song persona, even as they continue to make their incremental rise. This sophomore effort finds the still young band strutting as confidently as ever, relaxed and sure of themselves even as they play a well-worn brand of music that can so easily devolve into derivation when in the wrong hands. It’s not hard to see how singing about old-timey staples like stagecoaches and trains—as they do in the album’s first two tracks—could seem gimmicky or just plain corny. Houndmouth once again sidesteps this pitfall through verve alone.
Little Neon Limelight may not quite reach the heights of their debut—largely because there are simply fewer outright high points—but it’s consistently enjoyable throughout. From the Hills opened with a triad of infectious roots grooves while Limelight is a bit more scattershot with its impactful moments. Opener “Sedona” certainly does the trick, though. The sound of whistling wind introduces the album before a steady, piano-powered beat picks up and Matt Myers invokes iconic Western director John Ford within the first verse. What follows is a rough-and-tumble kind of Hollywood story (“We’re going California but we’re all out of work/ I guess that’s better than a grave and a hearse, oh, oh”) basked in “Saturday night-kinda pink” neon. It’s a jubilant opening to an album that rarely achieves that level of giddiness.
Limelight also strikes upon something rich with “Black Gold.” Propelled by vivid imagery and a stock of memorable characters, the song details the greedy exploits of a rich oil family—punctuated by crunchy guitars and lines like “I used to see his sister/ Her name was Jenny Gasoline/ I used to see her picture/ On a cover of a dirty magazine/ But she looked best when she was mine.” But there’s also a mournful tilt to Limelight. Katie Toupin, who often plays second fiddle as a vocalist to Myers and his sharp-edged country rasp, stands front and center in the acoustic guitar slowburner “Gasoline.” Meanwhile, she plays a crucial role in her verses in the soulful “Otis,” a song where the full foursome get to wail in its robust chorus. And “For No One” has a bitter edge to it, even as it’s gently sung by Myers over acoustic guitar.
Meanwhile, “15 Years” is a honky-tonk romp that’s perhaps a little too freewheeling for its own good, tapping into a few too many clichés (“ball and chain,” “keep a good man down,” etc). It’s hard not to think of Bob Dylan as the jangly guitar and organ opens “Say It.” And the melancholy guitar riff in “Honey Slider” definitely calls to mind Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone.” Though the album does blend together somewhat, especially in its back half, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Houndmouth know what they’re doing, and they do it well. They’re one of those few bands where “more of the same” isn’t an insult. Little Neon Limelight won’t knock your socks off, but it’ll keep your toes tapping.