As far as mainstream music lovers in this hemisphere are concerned, Australian indie duo An Horse are still an insider’s secret. If Zooey Deschanel gave herself a pixie haircut, she’d be tailor made to star in the movie as lead vocalist and guitarist Kate Cooper who, along with drummer Damon Cox, started the band (where else?) in a record store down under, and have steadily been etching their way into the rest of the world’s consciousness.
Walls, the band’s sophomore LP release, is a high energy album fuelled with jagged-edged pop melodies. The hipster façade, however, is really just that: produced by Canadian Howard Redekopp (whose past projects include Said the Whale’s Islands Disappear and two discs by the New Pornographers), Walls is a pretty straightforward record, albeit one with just a thin coat of studio varnish.
The arrangements are sparse and fairly conventional; given the limitations of a duo, there’s only so much to be expected, but even in that context the steady, gritty crunch of the rhythm guitars and backing drums start to conspicuously lack nuances or diversity. On the other hand, it’s a pretty blissful noise with a live-off-the-floor feel to it, and a genuine buzz of excitement. Walls spans a range of moods and feelings, sometimes in a single song (“Brain on a Table” is moody and pensive, but it’s got a rock refrain that you can hear audiences bawling along to while swaying to the beat).Where the instrumentation lacks in creativity, it makes up for in energy.
Cooper’s sprawling, accented vocals are part dreamy and vulnerable, and another part cocksure and jaded. It can be a bit condescending – not to the listeners (she’s on their side), but to the subjects themselves. “I sat in an airport thinking I’m gonna die,” she announces at the beginning of “Airport Death,” but it’s with such self-assuredness and over such a high tempo power chord progression that she might as well have added, with a shrug, “But who cares?”
Much like the band itself, however, it’s all an act; appropriately enough, walls built around the truth. That becomes evident on the slower, acoustic tune “Windows in the City,” when tiny cracks start forming to let us glimpse what’s really going on. “We could count all the planes at the airport / But that would mean you and I were in the same spot,” she proudly half-sings, but she’s also half-begging, and we’re supposed to see right through it. More than that, we’ve got a good feeling she’s wasting her breath, revealing herself in all her humility, but she’s not looking for pity – try empathy.
“It’s funny how the walls talk / Especially holes in bedroom walls,” goes the lyric in “Swallow the Sea,” another tune where the band turns up the volume as if to hide the soul-barring message inherent. Of course, An Horse know better; the songs themselves are full of holes, and what you see by peering in isn’t hard on the eyes – or the ears, for that matter.