When I first got to know the music of Mark Hutchins, it was his first New Pale Swimmers album that did the trick. Short, simple, messy, memorable, oddly rocking songs with riddles for titles. In those days (and still, in these days) I was a big Robert Pollard believer, and so Hutchins seemed like some lost treasure that only the hippest citizens of northeast Indiana listened to. Soon enough came Walk It Off, Hutchins’ second album under the moniker he’s most known for, Vandolah, and then some more NPS tracks and Vandolah records. And then, finally, in 2010, Hutchins released his masterpiece, a solo record called Sleepy Furnace. Add another solo record, last year’s Liar’s Gift, to the heap, and people hardly remember the days of the New Pale Swimmers, let alone Vandolah. But now, out of nowhere, comes the One More Minute EP, released under the Vandolah assignation.And here’s the thing: I no longer think of Pollard when I play a Hutchins song. Sometimes I remember my favorite R.E.M. songs, but most of the time I hear either The Beatles, Wilco or, especially, Sparklehorse. Good company. And while Hutchins often does bring to mind the great GBV when on stage, it’s more of a mellow Tobin Sprout mood (see 1997’s criminally underrated Moonflower Plastic) than a high kicking, hard rocking Uncle Bob vibe – especially when he’s singing solo or Vandolah selections. Indeed, the five songs and two instrumentals here all register as mid-tempo rockers of the thick, heavily ornamented variety, all built on the fragile, nuanced vocal tracks Hutchins seems to perfect a little more each time out. The voice and, of course, Hutchins’ highly regarded home production sound as good as any other indie rock record currently on the shelves and Neat Neat Neat. (Note: As far as I know, aside from here-and-there contributions from J. Hubner, Hutchins played everything on this EP.)
As he’s moved away from his New Pale days, Hutchins’ writing has grown increasingly literate. Once a man tweaking off the art of reflective abstraction, Hutchins’ writing now inches closer and closer to the “artsy classical” appeal of a Jeff Tweedy track, never straying too far from digestible, but still poetic comprehension. Like the many rockers in his past, Hutchins’ writing remains as sing-along friendly as ever, especially on opener “One More Minute” and a bouncy downer called “Something Makes Me Lose My Mind.” On the latter we really get to see Hutchins digging in on the production, ornamenting his track with little details and nuggets like Easter eggs hidden for future listening sessions.
In summary, yes, the voice is still king on Mark Hutchins-sung records, whether he intends it to be or not. The lyrics and melodies fall out of the speakers like sweet, calming honey, and the production is as tasteful as ever. As far as I know, Hutchins has not yet released a bad set of songs. Some, like Sleepy Furnace, are better than others. One More Minute, though brief, would probably land somewhere towards the top of the stack, thanks to “Hiding Its Teeth” and the two above-mentioned bits of songwriter bliss. Hugely beautiful tracks, all three.
There has been this lingering question for Hutch fans since Furnace was released: “Is Vandolah still a thing?” One More Minute possibly tells us that, yes, Hutchins will keep the Vandolah output coming, even if it sounds more like his solo work than 2007’s rocking To the Moon EP. Or will he? Is the EP’s title telling us that, hey, here’s the bottom of the barrel. Is Hutchins cleaning house or keeping busy? Either way, this latest batch tastes every bit as good as we’ve become accustomed to under the Mark Hutchins brand.
Download the EP at vandolah.bandcamp.com. While you’re there, maybe also pick up Vandolah’s excellent, but little known, debut album, 2003’s Please.
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July 27 • The Clyde