Trying to capture exactly what a Holopaw song means is like dipping your hands into cold, cold water, cupping them tight and watching images you were certain of a minute ago disappearing through the invisible cracks in your hands. It is perhaps better to sit on the bank and watch the torrent of water thunder past. Catching the songs in your hands could only diminish their allusive beauty. Really understanding them might just kill them dead.
Holopaw is a five-person band headed by John Orth. If you know Orth at all, it is probably because he wrote "Hotcha Girls", a song many considered to be the highlight of Ugly Casanova's 2002 album Sharpen Your Teeth. Holopaw's self-titled debut follows in that album's vein of skewed Americana, stripped bare and viewed through a carnival glass. Its ten tracks wend their way through a forest of oblique metaphors, kaleidoscopically fractured images and alt-country instrumentation, their path lit only by the wounding fragility of Orth's voice.
Holopaw's songs pit achingly traditional sounds and images against the ominous bulk of the modern world. For example, on "Abraham Lincoln", Orth lifts a line from -- I'm not kidding -- "Home on the Range", yet transposes frolicking deer and antelope with the encroaching modernity of telephone wires and the 21th century alienation of "boys swapping licks and girls folding papers" in the mysterious "cold, cold places behind the Abraham Lincoln". Later, in "Hoover", the very traditional sounds of lap steel guitar frame an ode to one of technology's marvels -- the Hoover dam -- which Orth, perhaps ironically, describes as "three stories of solid progress, propped up by the kickstand of a dam." The song's warm humanity comes from a child who stands in the shadow of the huge edifice, skipping stones across its reservoir and seeing ponies -- Appaloosa, Palomino, dappled grey -- in the foam.
Two of the disc's most beautiful songs are, more or less, about love, distance and isolation. "Short-Wave-Hum (Stutter)" considers the spaces between people, their communications filtered through short-wave hum and sliding across telephone wires. Orth understands that other people are essentially unknowable even when they're standing right next to you, and articulates it glancingly in lines like "Don't you know your quiet open spaces and shivering spaces are pushpins on the map I'm poring over." Then, in the lovely "Hula-La", the singer hears his sister's whispers, the swish of her grass skirt, from inside the lonely diving bell he inhabits. The whispered "hush now, hula-la-la" tells you everything you need to know about love and longing and memory.
All but one of Holopaw's tracks are spare combinations of voice and guitar and similar stringed instruments (the press kit is pretty light on details, but I think I hear some mandolin and cello), lightly brushed with percussion. The penultimate cut, "Cinders", is far denser, incorporating swooning brass embellishments and floating choruses of wordless voice. It is gorgeous, feverish, a trip outside the world, and it suggests that Holopaw's first record is the barest beginning of what this band can do.