His Name Is Alive
Summerbird EP 
There are many reasons to love His Name Is Alive’s eccentric mastermind Warren Defever. He named his band after an afternoon hallucination about Abraham Lincoln. He used to be in rockabilly hellraisers Elvis Hitler. And since 1986, he’s been happily and idiosyncratically mining his own seam of darkly humorous, poetic music, abetted by an ever-changing, fluid group of collaborators.
HNIA joined the roster of acclaimed cult label 4AD in 1990. With their first album for the label, Livonia (named after Warren’s hometown in Michigan), they brought a new, heretofore-unheard sound to the label. Superficially lumped-in with the ethereal sound the label was known for, Livonia quickly made it quite clear to 4AD obsessives that HNIA were hardly easy to pigeonhole. Their sound was purely American, rooted in rock and psych-folk. Less angular and rock-oriented than either the Muses or the Pixies, but too dissonant to fit in with 4AD’s more Goth-tinged releases, Livonia lulled listeners with aural wallpaper (“As We Could Ever”) only to jolt them out of their complacency with dark themes and jarring slashes of guitar (“Some and I”).
Despite the mournfulness of early HNIA releases, a certain wry, puckish sense of humor began to emerge fairly early, initially in song titles. (You get the feeling Warn loves titles, the more ridiculously monikered a song the better. Better yet, why not give it two titles? Or three?) Transitional HNIA releases like Mouth by Mouth and Stars on ESP bore out this push-me-pull-you battle between the contradictory impulses of profundity and absurdity. That smoothed out gradually over the years as the songs grew more polished and straightforward, but thankfully the tension is still present as an animating force.
Another is that of inspiration. As a composer, Warren’s always worn his myriad influences on his sleeve, making music that is heavily reminiscent —but never slavishly imitative— of his heroes (Chris Bell, Brian Wilson, and Theodore Roethke, to name but a few). He is by no means a hipster mining the past with his laser-sights and encyclopedic knowledge of music set permanently on “Ironic Detachment.” The music of HNIA is sincere and eminently hummable —and if that’s damning it with faint praise, well, I don’t mean it to be. Sincerity is in dreadfully short supply these days.
Warren’s musical plundering is never done in such a way that the music seems smug, or hermetically sealed, because he wields them so effortlessly, and in new, subversive ways. The entirety of 1996’sStars on ESP plays like an early mash-up, veering from dub to pitch-perfect Beach Boys homage to full-on gospel by the end. There’s so much humor and pure cheekiness in the resulting song cycle that you can’t help but be won over.
For the most part, Warren works in a purely American idiom: writing deceptively throwaway pop songs with an unvarnished center of elegiac heartbreak. He gets purely bright, bubbly American voices to sing them. He’s a deeply idiosyncratic folklorist and preservationist who’s also a canny, witty producer. (For instance, it takes singular cojones to turn Rainbow’s “Man on the Silver Mountain” into a beatific lament.) Given this eclectic background, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that the group’s musical development post-Livonia hardly followed a predictable path. Each successive HNIA album has reinvented their sound whole cloth —from the haunting, obsessive song-poems of Home is in Your Head (1991) to the relative straightforwardness and ecstatic spirituality of Mouth by Mouth (1993) through to the bluesy, soulful laments of 2002’s 4AD swan song, Last Night.
Which brings us, neatly, to their new, self-released, internet-only EP, “Summerbird”, the first widely-available new HNIA release in a small forever.* (There have been a number of self-released items, some of which are still available through Time Stereo.) Its four songs take us from a bright, hazy midsummer day (opener “Summerbird,”) to the last, fading lights of Indian summer (the gorgeous closer “Get Your Curse”). “Hereforeveralways” sounds uncannily like it was made by Karen Carpenter and a beatbox that’d seen better days—but despite its rawness, it’s surprisingly lush and heartbreaking in the way the best Carpenters songs are. “Last Summer” is completely different again: a jaunty, hip-swaying tune that’s more Havana than Ypsilanti. “Get Your Curse” brings us back full-circle into happy/sad Beach Boys territory: it’s a deceptively bouncy little tune that grows more reflective as it wanes. An elegiac string section and slow, plangent piano see the song out. It’s a lovely effect, like a sunset painted in watercolor.
It’s good to see the group return to form after such a long silence. I’ve missed them. Now, if only they’d tour again.** If we’re lucky, they’ll even bring the whale next time.
* Except that I wrote this over the summer and their HNIA’s LP, Detrola, has just been released!
**They are touring! SXSW and West Coast tour dates are now up at their official site.