Album Review: High Highs – Open Season

[Fine Time; 2013]

“Almost every day during the hunting season, you see at least one item in the newspapers about somebody who has shot somebody else under the impression that he was a deer with a red hat, perhaps? Maybe a large flesh-coloured squirrel…” That quote comes from musician/humourist Tom Lehrer, as one of the intros to his 1953 track “The Hunting Song,” commenting on the absurd and excessive violence that ensues when open season is declared in America. Open season is a time when hunters across the country raise their rifles in the air, letting out a hoot of excitement about the fact that they are allowed to slaughter a particular breed of animal. It’s state-regulated and state-endorsed violence.

Open Season is also the title of the debut album by Australian/American band High Highs, which seems an odd choice for a band who have made rumblings and garnered interest by being particularly hazy, low-key, and almost calming–quite the opposite to the unabashed, gun-firing, SUV-driving hunters you might typically think of when you hear the titular phrase. However, “Open Season” is also the title of their best song to date, and the track that opened their four-track self-titled EP from a few years back, and considering it’s a song that asks pleasantly for repeated listens with its acoustic strums, lightly bouncing piano octaves, and dreamy high vocals, it’s no wonder the band have given their album the same name. Perhaps because of its brevity, the High Highs EP never gave the band much of chance to try and top “Open Season” (though “Horses” finished proceedings by ruffling a few feathers of interest), which helped build anticipation for their debut, hoping that they’d appear with a number of tracks equal to or greater than the one most fell in love with.

On Open Season, the title track still stands the tallest, shining like a beacon of sorts amidst a collection of middling, if not disappointing tracks that drift by without catching attention. The best of these come towards the album’s second half, as they capture a misty sort of atmosphere and either build from there or delve deeper into it. “Phone Call” begins somewhat typically, with guitars, gently reverberating vocals, and obscuring synths that aim for mystery. But come the chorus, a strange sense of tension begins to build with a throbbing bass line and even airier vocals harmonies breathing in the background. The following two tracks continue the album’s best run of songs, with “In A Dream” which brings some sunlight into the mix, and “Once Around The House,” which adds some pleasant cooing and manages to find a kind of dynamism as the track coolly comes together.

Elsewhere the aforementioned “Open Season” shines brightly and wonderfully, completely capturing your attention if the first ten minutes of the album don’t engage you fully. Another EP cut, “Flowers Bloom,” makes a reappearance, sitting in suitably between everything else here, though its fizzy bursts of vinyl crackle seem a little too excessive, even though they add some much welcome new textures. The remaining tracks–those stuck in between and around those already name-dropped–feel like innocuous filler here, drifting by harmlessly. Instrumental opening ditty “Dey” feels like a wasted opportunity as piano chords and distant percussion (and what may be some well-placed pizzicato plucks) begin to build before just falling away into the air, like a gust of wind passing by. The acoustic guitar-led “White Water” and “Bridge” are nice enough for all their simplicity, but they reveal that the skeleton of each of these tracks is too light and airy to survive without any sort of flesh surrounding them.

“Love Is All” and closing track “Pines” seek to replicate the joy of “Open Season,” but predictably never quite hit the mark. The former sounds like a last ditch to add some gusto into the mix and catch your attention while “Pines” has an undeniably similar plinky piano/guitar melody that sounds like the riff of “Open Season” slowed down even more. Thus it seems that High Highs are set to be remembered for the title track, which, in a way, is not a bad thing considering it’s a pretty great track, as I’ve said many times here. But many were probably hoping the band would ascend upwards from it, as it seems to elevate them above the clouds they cast themselves the first time around. With Open Season they’ve descended backwards, falling into the haze and consequently getting a little lost. “It could take you away,” goes the chorus to “White Water,” which inadvertently works as a mantra for the album; though, to put it more accurately, it might be best read as “it should take you away.”