The Hillary Reynolds Band may be a new name to our UK and European audience, but arrive on the back of a rapidly rising stock in the USA. The Boston based quintet have just released their second full album, The Miles Before Us, to capitalise on a growing profile on the live circuit around America that includes a number of high profile festival appearances. The gathering momentum is confirmed by the steady ramping up of action in the blogosphere and YouTube as new found fans are quick to voice their enthusiasm with a murmur of, “Pass it on.”
Having formed around the prestigious Berklee Music College and also the songwriting talents of Hillary Reynolds, who naturally enough lends her name to the band, it’s no surprise to find that the level of musicianship is pure class. The quintet’s line up boasts multi-instrumental skills: Hillary herself plays piano and mandolin as well as being the main voice, while the backing vocals are provided by guitarist Connor Reece, who also plays pedal steel and cellist Trevor Jarvis. The rhythm section finds Chris Mewhinney playing both electric and acoustic bass, with drums and percussion from Jeff Hale, who can also turn his hand to ukulele.
The combination of cello and bass is unusual as the bowed voice of the cello seems to add a little extra melancholic gravitas, but it’s the all around instrumental skill and Hillary’s clear, gorgeous voice, allied to strong harmonies that give this band their distinctive signature. On first play, The Miles Before Us leaves an impression of sounding pretty full on, big tunes swirling and brimming with instrumental colour. Once familiarity starts to take hold, however, you start to recognise the wide dynamic range and the subtle shading. The songs gradually reveal their full emotional scope, while hooking you in with their melodic finery, as the instruments claim their individual space and start to stand out in the mix.
It’s Hillary’s voice though that is the key here. In some ways she reminds me of Karine Polwart, at least on a couple of songs, although it would be a genuine surprise if that meant anything to her and it’s just how I hear things. While she doesn’t have Karine’s socio-political weight, Hillary is none the less compelling and there is plenty of substance to these expositions on the state of the heart and the vagaries and illusions, ecstasies and pains of love.
There’s also the fine balance between the grand and the minutiae, which you get right from the start. Took Me A While has a positively cosmic outlook with lines like, “Follow me to the edge of the earth,” and “We can hide on the edge of time.” Yet it also starts with faint blips of electronica, which sound like an old fashioned tape machine being played backwards. Then there’s a piano, big and bold, yet a single note at its core almost sonar-pings to guide us on our epic voyage. The song falls away to put Hillary’s exquisite voice at the leading edge and builds back up. The cello comes into the second verse taking us to the edge of bliss with Hillary leading us, “Dancing on and on in space.”
Pretending I’m In Love and Honey Come Home are more obviously acoustic flavoured. The former layering guitars over a brushed shuffle as Hillary deals with a shared deception passing for intimacy as she sings, “Someday some way we’ll speak the truth, ‘til then I’ll keep pretending I’m in love with you.” The country lilt of the latter features mandolin virtuoso Forrest O’Connor and banjo from Mark Whitaker, while the harmony singing and the use of male and female parts is sublime. Hillary naturally leads but on occasion, as per the middle eight here the roles are reversed. The cello is also highly effective and affecting and becomes a surprisingly versatile ‘voice’ within the mix.
Cant Let You Go fades in with an otherworldly wash of sound punctuated with the plink of notes from the upper end of the piano keyboard. It ramps up the tension, for Hillary to deliver the woozy, echo soaked lines, “Have you ever been to the bottom of the bottle and wanted just a little bit more?” As the song takes flight, there’s a soulful edge to Hillary’s voice, but there’s something more than that. As the title suggests, the story that unfolds is about not being able to let go despite knowing the potentially damaging consequences neatly framed by that opening question. The song retains an edge of disquiet, yet paradoxically soars with delirious abandon.
There’s another strong start to I Surrender, which has a touch of Appalachian gospel sung a cappella in three part harmony. The song then cuts a bluegrass romp with a little western swing and a soupcon of jam-band interplay, offering a generous spotlight to guest Forrest O’Connor. It’s another cleverly arranged piece of changing textures, clattering percussion and with a chance for guitarist Connor Reece to lay down some tasty licks.
The prefect balm after such excitement, Braver Than We Think is a breezily beautiful tune, that layers the band’s virtues into another adventurous arrangement. That breeze takes on a summery scent as What It Is comes on like a strangely effective and funky combination of Carole King and Hall And Oates. Balloon & Kite keeps things airy and blessed-out poppy, although the style shifts again. To their credit these gear changes come with a natural flow and as the band’s distinct elements are brought to bear on each track, so the natural sense of continuity is maintained.
As if to confirm exactly that, Crossing The Line changes the mood completely and offers one of the most immediate highlights from this varied set. There’s a deep thrum and boom of acoustic bass and drums and a real intensity as Hillary sings, “I don’t want to sleep alone tonight,” adding the recognition that, “It’s a lot to ask.” Once again, the following This Love Of Ours calms things down with a delicate acoustic guitar around which Hillary asks, “Take my heart in the morning when you leave, leave your love on the pillow so I can hold you while you’re gone,” into the gently ascending chorus, only for the middle eight to suddenly take on a note of desperation, before settling down to the songs gorgeous finale.
Another personal favourite is the gossamer light and somewhat ethereal How, but then I Didn’t Know Who Else To Call lives up the drama of its title and will probably stir the strongest reaction of all. It’s a heartbreaker, but in a really good way, as Hillary sings, “You’re the only one who’s seen me fall and I didn’t know who else to call,” as the cello and double bass build an emotional vortex that pulls you in. Of course, there are still a couple of surprises in store with the power chords of Looking For A Way Back setting up a rock out finale, only for Keep On Driving to finish in slightly more introspective mood, based around fuzzy electric beats.
It’s easy to see why there is excitement being generated around the Hillary Reynolds Band. For starters there’s Hillary herself, who has one of those bewitching, bitter-sweet, goose-bump inducing vocals, with an innate gift for melody. Around her are gathered some exceptional musical talents. They don’t want for ideas and are prepared to take risks in shaping harmonic possibilities and moulding Hillary’s songs into blissful ballads, spanning the dynamic range from sumptuous symphonies to intimate, intense introspection. As the title The Miles Before Us suggests the journey is just beginning for the Hillary Reynolds Band, but this album lays down a marker of what’s to come and on the evidence contained within, the possibilities are just about limitless.
Review by: Simon Holland