Edie Brickell & New Bohemians Master Mood with ‘Hunter and The Dog Star’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Edie Brickell & New Bohemians release their new album, Hunter And The Dog Star, this week via Thirty Tigers. In many ways, this is the second album in the group’s new phase of existence, having come together with plenty of reunion fireworks with Rocket in 2018. Though they have never really ceased being a musical entity, there have been long periods between releases and the advent of Hunter and the Dog Star actually marks their quickest turnaround ever between two records. Helping move that along, no doubt, was the fact that it was recorded at Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas, and produced by Kyle Crusham, just like Rocket.

Interestingly, the title of the new album contains many echoes of past album names and perhaps a bit of a tip of the hat to their identity over time. After all, their first, and multi-platinum album was titled, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars (1988), their second was titled Ghost of a Dog (1990). You could even argue that the title Rocket has a starry feel to it, like the new album’s reference to the constellation Orion and to Sirius, the Dog Star. Edie Brickell has also commented on the idea that idea of a “constellation” reminds her of the way the members of the group continue to experience “movement together” as they pass the thirty-year mark of shared history. Significantly, the Dog Star is also the brightest star visible before dawn, and that’s an intentionally hopeful reference from Brickell.

This kind of subtle complexity, hidden under the surface of well-crafted phrasing, feels typical of the band’s entire history and most of their output. There’s a thoughtfulness to things, a sensitivity to each band member’s contributions to songs, and a measured reflection in themes and use of genre. While Hunter and the Dog Star is an album that’s pretty much the furthest thing from hitting you over the head with musical conventions or aggressive lyrics, it doesn’t have intentions, even in its very eclectic approach. Those intentions seem to be to provoke thought and to inspire appreciation for the musically unexpected.

The lead single for the album, “My Power” is probably the most intentionally punchy song from the collection, one which definitely provokes thought about personal agency, whether we allow ourselves to have any, and why we do or don’t. This is not a song that tells us what to do with our power, but it is a pointed reminder that it exists and is not as diaphanous as the gently drifting music of the song might suggest. There’s a big, and interesting, contrast between the soundscape of the song and the subject matter that’s responsible for the profound sense of positivity the song suggests. And, as plenty of social commentary has already pointed out, this is the kind of song that just about everyone needs to hear and think about right now during these times of feeling powerless. 

But “My Power” does not preview the encapsulate the sounds or the themes of the album in any simplistic way. The album is not as deeply introspective as that song might suggest and the other songs aren’t all as intentionally subtle in their use of genre elements. The album has been described as containing Pop-Rock, Funk, Lounge, and Folk elements, and in combination that does give the collection a very layered feel. Despite the fact that this is the band’s quickest turnaround on a record, each song does feel carefully crafted with plenty of tweaking to strike just the right tone or attitude. In fact, Kenny Withrow has commented, around the time of making this album, on the importance of “mood” when approaching any song they want to write together. 

That may be the key to really unlocking Hunter and the Dog Star, recognizing mood and how mood can suggest musical directions in songwriting. Song like “Miracles” and “I Found You” have some of the strongest moods on the album, but others are still very recognizable and universal. While “Miracles” hints at direct experience leading to belief in positive possibilities, and “I Found You” is a rather breathtaking Folk approach to an abiding relationship, songs like “Stubborn Love” and “Horse’s Mouth” seem to highlight acceptance of human nature while commenting on it. The latter is nearly comical in its directness and really channels a Nashville sound, reminding audiences that if you don’t hear information directly, from “the horse’s mouth”, then you hear it skewed, from a “horse’s ass”, which is another very topical song in this era of misinformation.

“Sleeve” and “Rough Beginnings” both tells stories, the former in a more Alt-Rock way, and the latter in a definite Folk-Country vein, and both form easy connections to shared cultural experiences. These include the almost archetypal symbols that come up in tattoo art which a woman is having placed in her growing “full sleeve” tattoo, to the ordinary struggles people, and especially young women, face when they are born without advantages but are determined to make their way in the world,  to move “in the right direction”. Both songs, in their own way, are about self-exploration, and both seem to affirm the importance of that in a way that dignifies being human.

On this 11-song album, there are plenty of avenues that the band explores, and that the reader is left to explore, even including an instrumental piece with “Evidence”. The piece is more electronic than one might expect, building a landscape of sound that reminds us that Edie Brickell & New Bohemians are being intentionally experimental in this phase of music-making. Maybe we’re seeing shadows of things to come for future records on that track.

Listening to this album has mood-altering qualities because it suggests mood so strongly to the audience, and while there are significant shifts and variations of that mood between songs, the effect overall is effervescent, untamable in its elusive qualities. It suggests commentary on human life, subtle encouragements and gentle condolences, but in the end makes you wonder: What happened to “my power”? Have I kept it “moving in the right direction”? These little questions are important to the album, and the music brings an infectious drive to experiencing them and exploring them in new and meaningful ways.

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