Telescope, the new album by Asheville-based Ryan Sheffield and the High Hills recalls, from the opening notes of lead track “The Waves,” any number of bands. The insouciance and cleverness of They Might Be Giants and Bare Naked Ladies, the boozy swagger of The Pogues, the loose-limbed and starry-eyed stomp of The Lumineers.
The opener is, in fact, a grand introduction. It sways like a skiff out to sea, its very equilibrium dependent on a willingness to abandon the solid earth and be rocked by these fervent melodies.
The again, the cleverness, the swagger and the starry-eyed stop all actually belong to Sheffield and his band (Jason C. Waller, Brenna Sheffield, Adam Lavinsky and Bryan Highhill), which they prove over and over with each of Telescope‘s 11 raucously poetic tracks.
“Ghosts of Summer” deftly pairs rawness and beauty. Sheffield’s hoarse vocal, Highhill’s luminous horn, the dusky sparkle of guitars and keys that float all around the vocal. It’s a tattered love song, something sweet without being precious — and that’s kind of the thing with all of the album’s offerings. There’s a tongue-in-cheek-ness to Sheffield’s writing, a sort of wink. But there’s also an underlying realness that doesn’t flinch and doesn’t shrink from its own humanness.
“The Road To Montreal” definitely balances truth with smirk and wraps it up in sloshy roadhouse rhythms and rollicking folk blues. “Head For the Coast” plays off that same foundation. Guitars edge toward rockabilly, Sheffield’s saxophone recalls a breathless ‘60s dancehall.
While high energy and fully wrung-out and rocked-out songs (like “No Purpose,” whose fully-caffeinated piano part would do The Killer proud) are Sheffield and the High Hills’ métier, Some of Telescope‘s standouts are its few-and-far-between slower moments. “The City” is one. OK, it’s not exactly slow, but its quiet lead gives a taste of Sheffield’s vocal nuances. And then there’s a horn melee and the kind of thick beats and folky saunter than made the Pogues songs, at the height of that band’s prowess, so perfect. But I’d say that “The City” picks up where the Irish band left off. The songs opens, in its last moments, into a full-throated expression of freedom and restlessness. It’s anthemic and uncontainable and wonderfully executed.
If Telescope is rough in spots, and if certain songs are not fully-realized, that probably adds to the overall charm. There’s a sense, that runs like a current from start to finish, that this is a musical project fueled by passion, enthusiasm and the sheer joy of creating. It’s a joy to listen to, that’s for sure. Magical moments happen often, which suggests a promise: That Ryan Sheffield and the High Hills are only just getting started, and we’ll be hearing much, much more from this band.