This latest addition to Roger’s EclecKtic Corner is another courtesy of a trawl through Sid Smith’s Best Albums of 2013 for bands that went under my radar last year. Hejira are a newish band from London who show the good taste to name themselves after one of the 70s most individualistic albums. On the other hand their moniker could derive from an Arabic word meaning “journey to a better place”. Like the Joni Mitchell album, the sound they make is also defiantly uncategorisable, and is a mash-up of jazz and ethnic folk influences, stitched together with a minimalistic math-rock sensibility.
The four members bring their ethnic origins to bear on Prayer Before Birth, there being Chilean, Ethiopian, Hungarian and German blood mixing with the British plasma running through their collective veins. This disparate mix’n’match only lends to the airy and heady resonance of this work, produced by pioneering electronica guru, and all-round techno-polymath Matthew Herbert, and released on his own Accidental imprint.
As session musicians some members have played on Tom Jones, Amy Winehouse and Nitin Sawnhey records, and along with their in demand producer it all serves to make Hejira hip enough for even The Guardian to like them, but don’t let that put you off!
Blending folk and jazz and electronica in a way that makes them distant cousins of another London band loved by “those who know”, the utterly charming and certainly less threatening North Sea Radio Orchestra, opening track and single Litmus Test is an exercise in controlled vocal harmony and slowly ascending drums and reverbed guitar, like a meeting of the aforementioned Sawnhey, early Cure, and the Fairports.
Lyrically, fleeting glimpses into a darker heart where they “…can see the fear creeping up your spine” belies a naïve musical charm that prevents this band being burdened with the “prog” label, an omission which I’m sure would not trouble them one bit. However, progressive they most certainly are.
Occasionally the sound on the album, and lead off track and single Litmus Test in particular, has a rough edge to it that lends it a harsh atmosphere at odds with the delicate artiness displayed in the writing. On the fearsome Pinter the caustic guitar edge is roughened up some more by distorted percussion. That in itself is not a bad thing. However, call me old fashioned, but this all too prevalent “loud as it can go” sound for the cloth-eared mp3 generation that has been applied to some of this recording does get a bit hard on the shell-likes after a while. I feel that a more sympathetic production would have better revealed the human warmth at the heart of these songs, as subtlety is sometimes lost in noise levels bouncing in the red.
The delicate touches are not entirely lost however, as evidenced by the lovely Know, which is a gentle poem of the passage of time revealing layers of relationships. This song floats by as a modern electronic folk song that at the same time sounds as old as the hills. When the harsh sound works is on a song like Dust where sudden stabs of distorted noise blow the metaphorical dust clouds up in the air, as if the intrusion of reality is upsetting the “dust of dreams” where “you’ll find everything that you need”.
Fields Of Rooftops inhabits Blue Nile territory, becoming wistful in the cityscape. There are some very fine lyrics on the album, a highlight being Echoes, detailing the pain of separation where “distance is the drug that dries our tears”. Gypsy Of The Soul is another example of a song that escapes the audio mangle largely unscathed and it is all the better for it. A tale of self-doubt and dislocation set to the beat of a barely controlled headache thrumming away in the synapses, piling on the urban angst.
The Penny is a floating minimalist spacious ballad of loss and rebirth, whereas Powercut is possessed of a monster post-rock spirit, waves of reverb and crashing bass guitar distortion (surprise surprise) countered by some elfin-like vocals and ending abruptly to the accompaniment of a synthesised brass band; quite mad but it works. Contrast those two songs and you have the two magnetic poles of Hejira’s muse, between which the album swings with a carefree spirit. I’m not entirely convinced by the overloaded production on the louder numbers, but Prayer Before Birth remains a highly enjoyable listen from a band with a burgeoning progressive musical spirit.
01. Litmus Test (6:39)
02. Time (7:20)
03. Know (4:46)
04. Dust (5:48)
05. Fields Of Rooftops (2:35)
06. Echoes (4:26)
07. Pinter (6:30)
08. Gypsy Of The Soul (4:59)
09. The Penny (4:33)
10. Powercut (5:37)
11. Reprise (2:19)
Total Time – 55:49
Sam Beste – Vocals & Guitar
Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne – Vocals & Bass
Alex Reeve – Lead Guitar
Alexis Nunez – Drums
Record Label: Accidental Records
Year Of Release: 2013