For a brief time, I had closed off the place in my heart for band names that employ two V’s masquerading as a single W — it was reserved for Alvvays in all their shoegaze glory. But this winter when I caught Soccer Mommy’s opening act, Hovvdy, the playing field was leveled.
What strikes me about their music is that, to be frank, it should be boring…but it’s not. It’s simple, but the sounds are blended so warmly and invitingly that you won’t find a reason to leave. Hovvdy — hailing from Austin, TX, and thus appropriately named — is the product of two touring-drummers-turned-guitarists who realized their potential as a self-proclaimed “pillowcore” duo. Maybe they’re so intriguing to me because they offer glimpses of great indie artists. The unfinished sound and occasional twang of (Sandy) Alex G. The emo-experimental elements of Elvis Depressedly. The reminiscent indie-folk of Yo La Tengo. The ambient, lo-fi bedroom pop of Fog Lake. Even some snappy autotuned runs like those of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
From their beginnings five years ago until now, the band has evolved at an optimal rate. Each new release covers new ground, yet it’s predictable and comfortable enough to keep you following along. On their recent record, Heavy Lifter, Hovvdy’s melancholy songwriting is preserved, but more prominent percussion presents a newfound layer of energy. Despite both Charlie Martin’s and Will Taylor’s drumming backgrounds, though, there’s nothing showoff-ish about any of the instrumentation. These are men of subdued decibels, a sonic counterargument to the expectation that drummers be loud or rhythmically complex.
The beat of tracks like “Mr. Lee” and “Ruin (my ride)” might move you to nod your head along, but the album’s standout songs are the ones that aren’t afraid to take their time getting up close and personal. Take “So Brite” for instance, its breathy vocals confessing a pair of my personal worst worries, too: “What if I start to lose my mind? / What if I start to lose my shine?” The melody is carried by a gentle entanglement of fingerpicked harmonies from acoustic guitars — some of the duo’s lightest strumming yet. And the wispy, brushed drums maintain control over the dynamics of the track, ensuring they still stay true to the band’s hushed, downtempo feel.
“TellmeI’masinger” is perhaps the most immediately attention-grabbing track of the record. Aside from the validation-seeking title, the tune opens with shrill, ominous, punching piano chords in the highest achievable octave. It’s self-deprecating and ironic. It vaguely resembles the sound of mischievous childhood cousins poking at Grandma’s out-of-tune baby grand at the family holiday party. (Can you tell I’ve partaken in this particular scenario?)
With more vulnerable and reflective lyrics than before, the slowcore combo explores where they’ve been and where they might go in Heavy Lifter.
After Martin and Taylor first met at a baseball game while on separate tours, they hit the ground running and started combining solo projects — which wound up being compatible, then consolidated into Hovvdy’s 2016 debut record, Taster. Their rise to fame rested on layered bedroom recordings from iPhone voice memos (which were memorable, indeed). The tracks crawl along a trail of natural minimalism that’s comfortably accessible to the intermediate-level guitarists as well as their fans.
Record label Double Double Whammy remastered Taster for release in 2017, and the band’s sophomore album, Cranberry, followed in 2018. The blurry, black-and-white album art alone whets listeners’ appetite for its dizzy nostalgia.
If you embark on Hovvdy’s discography in order, you might sense that Heavy Lifter concludes the trilogy with a certain self-awareness; it describes lasting impressions (and depressions) of southern, suburban youth. Fittingly, the sum of its parts was recorded across temporary Texas home studios. The storytelling is not without its dismal moments, but it’s not exactly angsty — just existentialist.
The band pulls autotune out of their experimental toolbox on “Tools,” showcasing their willingness to branch out. Distorted drums kick off the song but quickly cut off. It’s taken over by jumpy solo vocals with accompanying piano chords, making it one of the clearest-sung performances yet.
The record’s finale, “Sudbury,” is an ode to naive childhood aspirations (“Front yard catch / You got a plan / To be a baseball star / Texas Ranger shortstop”) up against the present reality (“Down the hall / Call my mom and tell her / That I’ll be moving to the coast / For how long, who knows”). Really, it all comes full circle quite cleverly, considering the artists met each other at a baseball game.
What’s ultimately so fascinating about the merging of Hovvdy’s musical masterminds is how well the two men mirror each other. With the triumph of Heavy Lifter, I now wonder if the “two V’s masquerading as a single W” is actually a metaphor for their mirror-image symmetry — how they’re always on the same lyrical page and sonic wavelength.