Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Graham Hunt Try Not To Laugh

Smoking Room
Smoking Room

What do Madison, Wisconsin and Manchester, England have in common? Superficially, maybe nothing, besides the odd fact that you could get away with a cheery “Believe you me!” in both places. But in reality, both destinations share core values and a somewhat parallel history. Over the decades, the two major cities have been upheld as strongholds of counterculture — particularly with their large student populations — and progressive, working-class politics, given their rich history of organized labor. These metropolises were home to notorious locales like Miffland, Madison’s late ‘60s radical anti-war enclave, and Hulme Crescents, Manchester’s mid ’80s housing estate-turned-underground cultural hub, which both gathered nonconformists who quite literally changed history. And there’s surely an alternate universe where Friedrich Engels resided in Madison during the late 19th or early 20th centuries and encountered many of the same harsh realities endured by workers in industrialized Manchester — famously chronicled in his 1845 book The Condition Of The Working Class In England.

As a matter of fact, these two locations also share interesting musical connective tissue via diligent singer-songwriter Graham Hunt. The Madison-based power pop musician has previously referenced the English city’s rave-y Madchester scene with the funky breakbeats and groovy keys of his 2022 LP If You Knew Would You Believe It. But on his fourth full-length, Try Not To Laugh, Hunt’s songs recall a different staple of Manchester’s musical pantheon: Badly Drawn Boy’s Y2K Mercury Prize-winning debut, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast. Hunt doesn’t fully indulge in Bewilderbeast’s more baroque tendencies, but both records share an amiable folksiness, a love of traditional pop songwriting, and a penchant for batshit sonic touches that sound like they could’ve either started out as a joke or hatched from an elaborate dream.

As his charmingly oddball tones and melodies might suggest, Hunt has a peculiar musical background. In high school, he sported a mohawk and played in various street punk bands around Milwaukee, before joining country-rock band Trapper Schoepp And The Shades and forming Midnight Reruns, whose early garage rock sound — still possessing remnants of bluesy, singalong street punk — eventually morphed into more refined, sunny pop. Around the same time, Hunt also played in hardcore outfit Midwives and later became a touring member of noisy shredder Mike Krol’s band, perky alt-country group Dusk, and, more recently, fellow Wisconsin guitar-pop stalwarts Disq (whose members Isaac deBroux-Slone and Shannon Connor frequently appear on Hunt’s solo work, including Try Not To Laugh). You’ll find Hunt’s production, vocals and guitar playing all over various underground Wisconsin pop projects, like Sundial Mottos and Soda Road, in addition to his work as a visual artist. In short, if you’ve watched a decent amount of guitar bands in Wisconsin clubs over the past decade, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Hunt play.

Hunt’s first solo album, Leaving Silver City, arrived in 2019, and it overflows with fickle pop exuberance. A tantalizing restlessness — both stylistic and rhythmic — looms large as Hunt shifts between pop, punk, folk and psych palettes with finesse, but there’s also a charming anti-perfection ethos, with Hunt’s unkempt vocal delivery and haphazard pop maximalism firmly positioned as features rather than bugs. From dynamic power pop (“Every Person”) and heady psych-pop (“Small Town Zoo”) to speedy egg punk (“Select All”), Hunt channels towering, bold sounds without sparing memorable hooks. His next record, 2021’s Painting Over Mold, is slightly less dense, though Hunt’s strong command of melody and mischievous desire to throw listeners off his scent remains intact. The scruffy, Wilco-like “Change Their Mind” comes armed with one of his snappiest choruses to date, while the far-out, sample-laden “Paul The Cat” rumbles with face-melting guitar work and foreshadows the groovy sound world of his following LP.

His third solo album, 2022’s If You Knew Would You Believe It, was another step towards a more pared-down sound, leaning more on acoustic guitar, but still infatuated with gnarly electric squeals. It also has a prominent danceable chug, which in concert with Hunt’s confidently tousled vocals, richly distorted guitars and organ-like keys, lends itself to the baggy sounds of Manchester. “Speeding Towards A Wall” fuses psychedelic indie-dance with Built To Spill, as swirling wah-wah effects and boxy drums meet a naggingly catchy rock hook and blistering guitar solo, while the earnest intimacy and wonky, harmonica-laced pop of “Weedleafbitcoinflag” cleverly leaves a runway for Try Not To Laugh.

The Hour Of Bewilderbeast seems to occupy little space in America’s contemporary cultural consciousness — in fact, I have no idea if Hunt’s heard it or would claim its influence. But it bridges the gaps between a lot of sounds Americans love — the timeless songwriting of the Beatles, the folky beauty of Nick Drake and the magnetic melancholia of Elliott Smith — as well as sounds Americans probably should’ve loved more (and are more so appreciated in Britain): the pastoral pop of XTC, the ballad-y grandeur of Mercury Rev, and the madcap tendencies of Super Furry Animals. While the album is by no means a mirror image of Try Not To Laugh — Badly Drawn Boy’s LP is double the length, and its somber folk bent is more pronounced — it is amusing how much they pull from the same mood board. Press play on Try Not To Laugh, and you’re immediately met with the grand yet affable string and horn-laden pop of the title track, and it’s hard not to imagine Hunt in Gough’s signature thick beanie. Other songs with a dash of Bewilderbeast stardust include “Tashmere Anthill,” a teeming Sgt. Pepper-like cornucopia of zany keyboard melodies, psychedelic guitar squawks, and tambourine, and “Rosemary Fabian,” the whimsical, Auto-Tuned closer. Plus, the punishingly dense balladry of “Seein’ The World” sounds like a more futuristic Bewilderbeast, filled out with stylish TAGABOW-like synth work and skittering electronic beats.

One avenue where Hunt diverges from Badly Drawn Boy is his party-starting groovers — I doubt anyone’s barbecuing to Gough’s sweet folky lullabies or brooding downtempo rockers. Hunt’s incessantly tuneful “Taste” sounds a bit like a lost Chumbawamba or Happy Mondays number with its cheeky, fun-loving ‘90s-esque chorus, and “Emergency Contact” brings a real summery power pop jolt with its knockout hooks, squiggly guitar solo and toy percussion. The trippy “Zoomed Out” also adds to the easy-going sing-songyness of Try Not To Laugh, which penetrates the psyche on a molecular level — strip away the jaunty bell-and-whistle experimentalism and you’d still be left with songs that pack a punch. And the bedraggled way Hunt sings — almost like he’s just woken up and suddenly improvising a tune to his grocery list — particularly in the verses of his songs, adds an interesting contrast to the often ornate instrumentation, as well as personality to his lyricism.

Lyrically, Hunt has proven to be a clever writer with a literary eye and some late-capitalist cynicism — singing lines like “Moonlight window shade stripes on my ceiling/ Through haze of sleep they look like prison bars” and “Viral violence is all that I’ve seen/ Commodify everything about me” over pleasant pop melodies. Part funny, colorful observations and part biting, hard-to-swallow truths, Hunt’s lyricism is proof that pop songs don’t have to be vapid or solely revolve around romance. Despite his Wisconsin roots, his writing is also a repudiation of polite Midwestern passiveness — he skewers both suburban kids and “real punks” on “Deal In Air,” ignorant opportunists on “How Is That Different,” and capitalism’s suffocating day-to-day effects on “Stripes.” But there’s also a stark, honest beauty as he mines profundity from the mundane with lines like “I can’t call you if I’m smoking cause you don’t do that no more” and “I like how you say hello instead of hey/ The color of your eyes when you’re drunk in the day.” And nowhere is that profundity and mundanity more powerfully intertwined than on “Natural Pace,” in which Hunt sings, “There goes one more friend that died/ Now I’m starting to lose count/ I didn’t know him very well but I think of him every day/ As I drive over that bridge and chew my food.”

On Try Not To Laugh, Hunt’s lyrics are imbued with the kind of dark, disillusioned humor that sets group chats alight and is informed by grave existential concern. “Screen on your gravestone, no running water,” Hunt sings of dystopian moral rot in the opening line of “Tashmere Anthill.” And on “Taste,” Hunt imagines a world with “a wood car that runs on hormones” and another where “nothing human makes it out alive.” But one has to admit there’s something (almost) equally funny about the horrors of, for example, our modern-day police state. “Sharpening your claws like the cop that draws the short straw/ And has to drive the rainbow car,” Hunt sings on “Try Not To Laugh.” Hunt’s criticism of and infatuation with America is deeply relatable — how does one reckon with the fact that the same place filled with heartwarming sights like truck nuts flapping in the wind or hot dogs launched out of a cannon is also unimaginably cruel? “There’s an old man blasting slow jams at the stop sign/ As you catch me up on your life since your dog died,” Hunt intones over screwy percussion on “Emergency Contact.” And as an artist after Engels’ own heart, Hunt also sings, “And you’re constantly haunted by ghosts inside of your phone/ That’s the revenge from all of the people who died/ The people who died when the world industrialized.”

Thankfully, Hunt never sinks to Bewilderbeast’s borderline pathetic mushiness, but he does reveal a heart of gold here and there. Couched near images of a dead beehive and trash expelled from a window are earnest lines like “Thank you for not giving up on me” (“Options In Community Living 23”) and “My nieces and nephews/ They grow and they thrive/ I think about them/ I should be in their lives” (“Zoomed Out”). Given the idiosyncratic classic pop sound, you might expect more idyllic, storybook scenes à la the Kinks’ Village Green, and while there is one mention of “hills and ponds and marshes,” Hunt largely sticks to amusing imagery that screams present-day America — the land of defaulted loans, “prefab homes,” and “string lights on wraparound porches nailed to a tree” — and stirs torn emotions.

As independent power pop seems to grow in popularity, it’s hard to think of anyone doing it quite like Hunt. Never embracing plodding, plug-and-chug minimalism or indulging in cloying melodies or stale lyricism, Hunt really sticks his neck out, artistically speaking — definitely not a given with this kind of music. Try Not To Laugh is a smart and unexpected romp through different decades of guitar pop and a reminder to soak in all the love and dark silliness around us before we’re ravaged by untenable sea level rise and replaced by uncanny-valley avatars. It’s also just damn fun — and if “had fun” is the only epitaph that scrolls across the screen of your future gravestone, then that’s pretty good if you ask me.

Try Not To Laugh is out 12/15 via Smoking Room.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Wishy’s Paradise EP
• Lil Reese’s Ask About Me
• Without Peace’s Crash And Burn
• Bas’ We Only Talk About Real Shit When We’re Fucked Up
• The Black Crowes’ The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion box set
• Eels’ Eels So Good: Essential Eels, Vol.2
• Madeline Kenney’s The Same, Again: ANRM (Tiny Telephone Sessions)
• Capsule’s Ferox EP

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