Elegant pop master or riff-herding rocker? North Elementary leader John Harrison has long played both roles. On album, they’re prone toward creamy textures and choreographed sonic bliss, a dot along a curve that bends from New Order to the Church to Sparklehorse. But on stage the submerged bar band emerges and North Elementary pushes its hook-lined pep toward college rock or power pop efficiency. The coexistence of those poles has fostered creative frisson for Harrison for more than a decade. The band’s most recent LP, 2010’s Southern Rescue Trails, slides from the dark, odd slither of “War For Kicks” to the synth-laden drift of “King of Sundays.”
But that duality has at times been discomfiting and even disorienting, a problem that the new Honcho Poncho corrects, in part, with a more consistently energetic mix, bolstered by a second songwriter. Rather than build and obsess over the tracks that would make up their fifth album, North Elementary cranked through Honcho Poncho’s nine songs with producer Alan Weatherhead in just six days. The results feel fresh and urgent, a feeling that has sometimes been lost in North Elementary’s studio-inflicted meticulousness.
But the most obvious change is the addition of songwriter Sean Parker, formerly of Pleasant, to the mix. He contributes two tracks—the moody, Britpop-like ballad “Left Doubt” and the ringing neo-psych rocker, “Hi-Lo.” The latter’s a particular fetching tune that pairs The Jesus & Mary Chain’s power-chord roar with Primal Scream’s shambling sway and teases both with Parker’s nasally, mumbled croon.
This is still Harrison’s flagship, though: Of the seven tracks he contributes, he opens and closes on high notes. Coiled opener “Return to Couches” is one of the catchiest tracks in his catalog. It bursts ahead with a solitary distorted riff, with an organ riding beneath the guitar crunch to add a subtle garage-pop verve. Meanwhile, its successor, the bouncy “Way Out (Happy Here),” creates a collage of references: The perky keyboards recall The Kinks’ “Come Dancing,” while the guitars’ sudden snap suggests Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. Somewhere in the break, the song gets hijacked by the New Pornographers and fades away on a bed of noise that Pavement’s Spiral Stairs might conjure. This all happens within four minutes.
Honcho Poncho sags a bit toward the center, but the parting pair—“Undressed and a Place To Go” and “Devils and Jesuses”—offer both a strong close and some of the record’s best ruminations. Scratchy post-punk guitar and tom-toms conjure a shadowy, pursued feeling for the former, and the subject escapes into the night rather than face their reflection in the mirror. “Like a flood you’ll come around again,” Harrison sings. “All used up, not enough for your appetite.” Through the smoky cabaret swing of “Devils and Jesuses,” guided by wonderful drumming and skeletal keyboards, Harrison goes existential: “We’re spending our time just digging those holes searching for treasure to fill up our souls,” he sings. “And you know that I’ve been here before.”
And indeed, North Elementary have been here before, attempting to manage stylistic diversity within an album that maintains momentum from one end to another. And Honcho Poncho does that better than most North Elementary records to date by simply and proudly answering “Yes” to the question of “Elegant pop master or riff-herding rocker?”
Label: Potluck Foundation