Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Sept. 29, 2003
Just four minutes into its most recent release, Richmond’s Broken Hips hit a stride that most bands struggle and search for over the course of several albums. The song, a smooth poppy gem titled “3937,” begins with snow bells and carefully laid vibes but starts really moving forward with the introduction of dueling guitars, one a distorted, high-pitched wail and the other a quirky, muted march that sounds as if it were recorded underwater. As the guitars weave around synth washes and the constant 1-2-3, 1-2-3 of the snow bells, Jess Hoffa’s passionate voice builds and builds until she lets loose, repeating above a crescendo of sound, “Let it hurt, let it hurt, let it hurt.” The five songs on the band’s recent EP — a follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut — are all sharply written and well performed. But the closing moments of “3937” pretty much says it all.
Broken Hips’ music falls somewhere between the ethereal, ghost-voiced pop of Low and the more band-oriented structures of an act like Eleventh Dream Day, while not sounding quite like either. The sextet is a rock band and makes good use of the basic conventions: the crafty guitars, the catchy rhythms, the sharply recorded vocal tracks. It’s the details with which they flesh out their songs, however, that seem to make them unique: instead of the obvious turntable scratches or idiotic samples, Broken Hips build dimension and sell complicated, emotional passages with musical saws, vibes, pedal steel, cornet, and the warmth of the upright bass. In this, they may have more in common with the criminally underrated Pinetop Seven, whose cinematic acoustic offerings are surely to get name-dropped here alongside the tired but obligatory phrase “Americana.”
(Need to be sold? Just listen to a couple minutes of the heartstring-tugging acoustic ballad “Worser,” which features lush contributions from banjo, cornet, and something that sounds vaguely like an accordion.)
The best moments on the record, though, aren’t when the band is toying with an acoustic whisper but putting down layers of sound as a full six-piece, like the growing frenzy of guitars and strings at the close of the EP’s second song. All in all, the band strikes a delicate but intriguing balance between its softer ambitions and its desire to thrash around, crafting something at once energized but composed. The husband and wife duo of Bryan and Jess Hoffa help a lot in this, laying down smoky and occasionally sugar-coated vocals over songs that have a natural, late afternoon sway to them.
And, again, it’s the details that make the difference: listen to the reverbed, doo-wop guitars in “Black Thumb,” the jagged see-saw of strings mixed with distorted audio tape and bass heartbeats in “Bad Shoes,” the mournful trumpet in the shadow-filled “Murder of Owls.” As broken as it may claim to be, the Hips know what they’re doing.
The disc closes with the cool isolation of “Murder of Owls,” where the Hoffas — multi-tracked into a kind of breathy choir — softly moan over pianos, horns, spare noises, and the occasional pitter-patter of percussion. For all of the careful textures, the song is, at its heart, a soft and simple lullaby, the last chance for the band to sway the listener to sleep before the disc stops spinning. Good thing, then, that technology allows us to repeat our records ad infinitum: there’s a part four minutes into that first song that I think I have to hear again.