Thursday, July 18, 2024

King Hannah

Piazza delle Feste, Porto Antico di Genova

During their first tour in the United States, King Hannah found it hard to believe where their debut album, “I’m not sorry, I was just being me” from 2022, had taken them. Much of their second album, “Big Swimmer,” set to be released on City Slang on May 31st and previewed by the titular single featuring Sharon Van Etten, was born from stories and reflections on their travels as the duo shared the stage with Kurt Vile, Kevin Morby, Thurston Moore, and festivals throughout Europe and North America.

Especially in America, the indie rock duo from Liverpool composed of Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle, found themselves looking through the window of their van as if it were a screen, drawing inspiration for new narrative ideas. Being in a new place opened their eyes to common events, everyday things, which they would have surely overlooked if they had happened in Liverpool, but which they now observed from a new perspective.

“When you’re visiting a different country, it’s more like you’re witnessing someone else’s life,” remarks Merrick on the band’s on the road experience in the States. This blends a balance between lightness and darkness, as the band observed small everyday things, horrors, and banalities – all against the backdrop of their dreams of performing around the world, which had become a reality.

That balance between light and shadow, lightness and heaviness, is essential for the band, especially as each project, from conception to release, is approached uniquely and distinctly. This can be heard both in their first EP, “Tell Me Your Mind And I’ll Tell You Mine,” but also in the debut album “I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me,” released respectively in 2020 and 2021.

“I’ve noticed [this balance] in the different ways we write. I often feel stimulated by anger, while Craig is more stimulated by romantic ideas,” observes Merrick, then turning to Whittle. “Lyrically you write really beautiful, enchanting things, and they are really captivating images. I write rather tough stuff, which may be more disturbing or difficult.” “And you also write beautiful things, too!” Whittle retorts.

This delightful equation becomes even more fascinating when the band performs live, and it is precisely through these experiences that the band’s perspective has evolved. This is particularly felt on “Milk Boy (I Love You),” which tells the story of the band witnessing a discussion between a young boy and an adult man near the titular Philadelphia venue where they played during their first American tour. While the romantic touch of the album is distinctly felt on the noisy montage of “New York, Let’s Do Nothing,” a snapshot of everyday life that wouldn’t be out of place on “Tuesday Night Music Club” or “Adventure” by Television. “Somewhere Near El Paso” paints images on faded billboards of memories a la Neil Young: an “outrageous” tuna sandwich, motel sheets stained with blood, two men discussing taking their lottery winnings to a “brothel.” The song explodes after setting these snapshots of reality, a noisy immersion of yellow stripes unfolding along a lost highway.

Paradoxically, the title track and opener of the album, “Big Swimmer,” was the last song written before heading into the recording studio, musically fixing the “testament” of the tour and the lesson the band learned from it: giving up yields nothing. Merrick’s voice stretches out, brave as if channeling the same spirit that occupies “Free Man In Paris” or “Andromeda.” Whittle is also precise with his guitar, with melodies that open up like oars along a blue current. “Big Swimmer” is one of two tracks on the album to feature the vocals of indie veteran Sharon Van Etten, with whom the band connected when Van Etten released their debut single “Crème Brûlée.” Van Etten’s voice intertwines effortlessly with Merrick’s, swirling like two parallel tributaries. Having a beloved and respected heroine contribute has truly touched and moved the duo, especially since her voice is present in a song that embodies the balance achieved in relentlessly pursuing personal creative visions.

“I think Sharon remembers perfectly what it’s like to be a new artist,” Whittle comments on Van Etten’s support for the young band. “She made us reflect on how we move in the world, on how we treat people.” Van Etten’s generosity and support emphasize the appeal of “Big Swimmer” to keep swimming towards the waters that call you.
“Big Swimmer” is also a song full of references to their musical heroes, those who have helped shape this record with their influence. They are artists that Merrick and Whittle love and have become the patron saints of the album’s sound. Bill Callahan is appreciated on “Suddenly, Your Hand,” with an instrumental that echoes “The Moods That I Get In” from the band’s debut as well as a track from Gold Record. Slint is referenced on “Lily Pad,” with the bassline reminiscent of the closing track of the album “Spiderland,” “Good Morning, Captain.” “John Prine On the Radio,” the album’s epilogue, not only pays homage to one of the band’s favorite songwriters but also describes a scene in the kitchen at home while having dinner after a long period on tour, making the listener a guest of this memory.

The way Merrick and Whittle view the world from the minivan they’ve made their way in is largely influenced by the band’s voracious appetite for cinema and television. A clear reference to the title is found on “Scully,” an instrumental track dedicated to hours spent rewatching X-Files. “This Wasn’t Intentional,” again with Van Etten’s background vocals, was inspired by Aftersun. The song ends with a wide instrumental breakdown, reflecting the profound ways in which the film influenced Merrick upon first viewing. Unlike the American West, the landscape here recalls the hills between Turin and Prato that the band would have seen on one of their many trips across Europe. “Davey Says” brings to mind adolescent bloomings, something from the floors of “My Own Private Idaho” or “Rushmore.” Its light tone is a callback to the “you can do anything” essence of the album.

Following the desire to capture the energy of their early live shows, Merrick and Whittle turned to producer and sound engineer Ali Chant (Aldous Harding, PJ Harvey, Perfume Genius). In the producer’s single-room studio, where guitar amplifiers are stacked even in the bathroom, they felt at home. Recording the songs live in one go was essential, for Whittle, the goal was to create that feeling of everyone playing together in one room. In this space, where it seems like decades speak to each other by blending the richness and heart of the ’70s with the sparkling noise of the ’90s, Merrick and Whittle preserved the magic of those tour nights, where their new songs came to life under the stage lights. Their hope was to infuse “Big Swimmer” with those hypnotic movements of their live performances, with crowds simultaneously enchanted and enthusiastic.

“Big Swimmer” places King Hannah in a next evolutionary step from the first album, with a new understanding of their sound, their strengths, their gratitude, and their vision for the future. This understanding has undoubtedly led to the profound confidence audible in their new songs