Every once in awhile, life throws you a huge curve ball. Yesterday, I found out that the company where I have worked for 17 years – the better part of my adult life – is being sold. The future, for right now, is up in the air. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared and apprehensive about what comes next.
So it seems almost cosmically divined that one of my favorite bands, Quiet Hounds, released their new record, Shake, Don’t Shatter, on the day all of this craziness in my life went down. Hollywood couldn’t have scored a soundtrack better. Why? Because this album is a journey of self-discovery. A collection of songs about realizing what those unbreakable threads are that tether you to the people you love most. It’s a record about learning the strength you have to keep it together when everything around you seems to be crumbling.
There’s no doubt that this record is personal. For the first time in the band’s four-year history, the relatively mysterious quartet has given listeners a peek behind the literal masks. For a month leading up to the album release, they teased the story behind these songs. When life circumstances relocated the band’s lead singer to California in 2013, leaving behind the rest of the band in Atlanta, the future of Quiet Hounds was uncertain. But, they persevered, recording melodies and vocals and sending them back and forth via Dropbox to one another, finding creative solutions for problems that might stymie other bands (like recording vocals in a Toyota Prius when no other alternatives were available). In a series of emotional videos and blog posts, individual band members told their pieces of the story, sharing their thoughts behind the separation, intimate glimpses into their songwriting process, and more.
“These songs mean more to me than any others we’ve created. They’re about us. About struggling in the dirt and the mud. About being afraid, but never doubting. About what it means to be an artist, one that can’t live without the songs and the people that you create them with,” M Hound says in one of the videos, a simple yet intensely powerful statement about the deep bonds of friendship and camaraderie that develop in making music together.
That sentiment is at the very heart of this record. The separation, which continues today, resulted in six songs that, through metaphor and analogy, are a conversation among friends, a catalog of a musical brotherhood. In reading their preambles to the album, it’s clear that there’s an incredible amount of respect not just for the craft of making music, but for what each of them bring to the table in the band.
In my imagination, I see the band working out songs, sans lyrics, and sending these blank canvases of music across cyberspace, waiting for them to come back with vocal paint, messages from their friend 3,000 miles away. It’s an incredible frame for these gorgeous songs, but it should be noted that it is my singular interpretation of the album, and in no way do I know the actual meanings behind these songs.
“Gentlemen, believe we’ll do what we must, we hunt at all costs. So my friends, take heed, my hunter we trust, my hunter we trust. Don’t don’t don’t don’t stop stop stop stop stop, every time you fall, I pick you up.”
The chorus of the album’s opening track, “Hunter Gatherer,” is what lead singer E Hound called “a letter to my friends back home” to express his homesickness, expressed through the imagery of earlier times and the struggle for survival. The melancholy is palpable. It is a call to be heard, even across the miles. It is from here that the album takes off, and we watch the Hounds struggle with their new reality.
We hear E Hound roaming the California countryside, looking at estates and sprawling hills, but mocking the overindulgence in the Beatles-esque “Mansions.” He beckons his friends to “come and join me here someday, in artificial structures we can play.”
On the first single, “Magnolia,” the Hounds are truly at their best, with an almost orchestral number that illustrates their musical prowess that oscillates between gauzy, questioning verses and an upbeat, percussion-punctuated choruses that answer back, before closing with a bevy of strings that will make you swoon.
By now, you’re fully immersed in the Hounds story, and if you aren’t prepared, “Tidal Wave” will knock you off your feet. There’s an underlying current (pun intended) of complete defiance from E Hound, wrapped in the picturesque scene of California surf, as he seems to address the very real possibility that the band might not weather the distance between them. “You keep on talking bout the end…/These things I can’t even pretend…”
And then we come to my two favorite tracks of the record. The dreamy “Bright Matter” is the source of the album name, a celestial-themed number full of buzzy melody and animated drumming that uses the stars as a metaphor for connection. Given the way that these songs came to fruition, zipping across the miles through routers and servers and wires, it’s a particularly apt one, and as E Hound sings, “Hey, bright matter, you keep me safe, you keep me moving along/Shake, don’t shatter,” you get the feeling that the foundation that this band is built on is unbreakable.
The closing track, “Still Phantoms,” is like “Weathervane,” the final track on this album’s predecessor, both a message of resilience and a portending of what’s yet to come. Although sparse, it is arguably the richest track on the album, showcasing each of the band members individual musicianship in a way none of the other tracks do. (Don’t think I missed the double entendre in some of those lyrics, either.) As the song reaches a crescendo, layered vocals overlap and bleed into one another, and the four individual voices of the band come together as one.
Selfishly, I want this record to be longer than six songs. I want it to go on forever. But even in its brevity, Shake, Don’t Shatter is perfect because of the connection it inspires between the listener and the artist. If we are lucky, we’ve all felt these things: loss, homesickness, strong bonds with our friends, a “never-give-in” moment where we know for certain what it is we want to do. In the end, that is what it is all about, isn’t it? Music – and all art, for that matter – is a reflection of what it is to be human. It can be a celebration of our hopes and dreams, a conduit for our sadness and grief, a confessional for our fears and guilt, a way for us to express our love and gratitude for others, and a vehicle for finding our strength to hold on when the ground we know seems to be falling out from under us.
As for me… I’m more uncertain than I’ve been in a long time about my future. My job, my company, are so much a part of who I am that the idea of losing them makes me feel like I’m going to be left with a big black hole in my center. I don’t know what’s coming around the corner, and probably won’t for a little while. That’s really scary for me. So I’m going to need you all to remind me – and need to remind myself – that it’s okay to be lost for a little while, because I’m strong enough to find a new path back to solid ground.
Shake, don’t shatter.