Album Review: Hip Hatchet – Joy and Better Days

[Gravitation Records; 2012]

“Folk music” in its truest sense may be a thing of the past; the tradition of passing down songs from generation to generation by word of mouth is something that’s lost in this day and age of technology and metaphysical connectedness. Everything is recorded, nothing is lost, and songs are ‘completed’ in studios, with no chance to be developed by strangers on the road. Nevertheless, there can still be albums that are steeped in these traditions. The artist has learned from the records that were handed down or recommended to them, and using his or her own life experiences they can create a record that is as genuine and honest as any folk music. Hip Hatchet’s Joy and Better Days is one such record.

This kind of music was originally intended to tell tales about people and Joy and Better Days is exactly that; 12 memories from Philippe Bronchtein’s life beautifully rendered into glistening ballads, resilient melodies and timeless tunes. This is an album of songs from the road, and the momentum of moving from place to place is what keeps these songs individual in their subjects, but unified in Bronchtein’s regret at being unable to settle. In the opening lines of the album he tells us that he’ll be “leaving you behind for a city” – it doesn’t matter which city, his pain at having to depart is the point. Although our narrator is obviously the center of all of these, it’s the characters he describes that are the true joys of the album. Bronchtein manages to tell us more about the person and his relationship with them than we have any right to know; for example on opening track “American Charm” he describes how the object of his affections “steps over the clothes on [his] floor,” which instantly conjures for us the kind of intimate relationship they have, which he then expands upon beautifully as the song progresses, to the point where we’re sharing his pain at having to leave this beautiful woman. All of these songs, whether they’re about travelling, loving, drinking or anything else, are so rich lyrically that it’s as easy to become sympathetic with our protagonist as it is in any great novel.

Musically, the songs are all of a traditional folk leaning, but much like the different places and people that Hip Hatchet introduces us to, for all their similarities there’s something individual and endearing about each. “Childs Hand In Dirt” finds Bronchtein switching casually between a smooth croon and a rasp all while the lilting piano beneath helps to recall days spent in bed with another; the rambling, quick pace of songs like “Misdirected Man” and “Limits and Rules” brings the travelogue element to life; while closing track “When I Sing For Strangers” is little more than spindly acoustic guitars, and that’s all that’s needed in this intimate song. The songs are each like a different piece of the same patchwork, all stitched together by Bronchtein’s voice and character.

A lot of the album finds Bronchtein defeated, the music demure and slow and the inattentive ear will dismiss it as depressing, but to do so is to miss the whole point of Joy and Better Days. These songs are written in hindsight, so they’re seen through a lens of regret and longing, but these are the most basic emotions to take away. Bronchtein’s voice is warm and inviting, and once you use that gateway to get inside the songs you’ll find that there’s plenty more from all points on the emotional spectrum. Joy and Better Days requires that you spend time with it, but there aren’t many records that deserve it as much as this.