Houndmouth explores a litany of new sounds on Golden Age, but what made them special was lost in translation.
Fans of the Indiana-based Houndmouth may no longer recognize them as the same group that released the Americana-tinged rockers, From the Hills Below the City (2013) and Little Neon Light (2015). Their latest record, and their first without original member Katie Toupin who left the band in 2016, is a stark departure from their former rollicking folk sound. Having enlisted producers Jonathan Rado (Foxygen) and Shawn Everett (The Killers, Kesha, John Legend) for Golden Age, the band explores the sonic realms of synth pop and indie soul, citing Daft Punk and Frank Ocean as influences on the record. Although the band’s attempt at reinvention should be appreciated for its boldness, the end result is altogether lacking, as its overproduction does little in the way of differentiating itself from the current surfeit of ‘80s-inspired electronica.
At first, the album shows its promise with “Never Forget,” a song that develops a cinematic build like an opening John Hughes soundtrack flourish. Although the sonic territory is far removed from the blues-tinged “Sedona” from Little Neon Light, it at least carries a bit of emotional heft, unlike much of the remaining record.
The album’s following track is the first of many disappointments. Paced by a glitching drumbeat and mock-triumphant synthesizers, single and title track “Golden Age” layers an overabundance of synthetic blips, sharp panting, and static popping. Unusual sounds just feel thrown haphazardly in behind vocalist Matt Myers’ lyrics about living in a “golden age” in which “you know you gotta be famous.” The overabundance of sonic textures seem to point society’s issues with excess, material and otherwise, but like most postmodern critiques of capitalist fantasies, the song simply recycles the vapid forms without offering anything of real substance in their place. Such overproduction plagues nearly every song on the record, resulting in a lot of noise without a lot of substance.
The other singles fair equally as poorly. “This Party” meanders with a droll “too-cool” hipster malaise, and “Modern Love” loses its acoustic backbone in the messiness of its bridge. “Waiting for the Night” strives to be a mid-tempo earworm, but falls into a casual but boring surf-rock—the random sounds that funnel in and out behind the main groove only briefly draw attention away from its repetitiveness.
One of the few things that works well on Golden Age is the way the production transforms Myers’ vocal rasp into lo-fi fuzz, which is a nice juxtaposition with the sheen of the rest of the band’s sonic palette, especially over the syncopated rhythms of “Strange Love,” in the groovy refrains of “Black Jaguar,” and on the belted chorus of “Coast to Coast”—one of the few rocking and raw moments on the album. In these moments, the vocals cut through the inane cacophony of the songs’ background noises.
Yet, this move is still indicative of the larger problem of the band’s transformed sound—they moved away from something human, something embraceable, opting instead for something robotic. Altogether, Houndmouth explores a litany of new sounds on Golden Age, but what made them special was lost in translation.