alling out to softhearted heavyweights like R.E.M. and country and western’s effortlessly obsessive homage to the human voice, Tenderhooks’ Vidalia may be one of only a handful of contemporary records that carve instantly recognizable nostalgia into something as solid as the originals. In these pleasurable, highly rhythmic guitar takeaways nothing entirely sophisticated is happening, but the overall effect is that of intricately layered instrumentation playing host to strong, memorable vocals. Not always do the songs hit the mark, but when the band strays from whatever reminiscences appear in the listener’s mind, it’s not to lesser songs and lesser accomplishments, but to different sounds, different references, all the while strengthened by their lead singer’s balladic finesse.
In the case of the title track, the album’s third, the cue is decidedly Dandy Warhols, the song’s staticky guitars and cheery heft imagining a world not unlike the colorful, dramatic nexus of the Dandies’ video set in the documentary Dig. But the opener is a lighter, sunnier Zeppelin throwback, composed less rigidly than some of the album’s later tracks, when each beat is laid precisely on the line. That interest in beat is both ‘50s and Southern in its roots, and it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that this Knoxville foursome commands their range of influences with a sound that is quite simply a genuine article.
As the album progresses, the band’s sole lady, Emily Robinson, shares the mic with falsetto flirter Jake Winstrom in sweltering ballads like “Quarter of a Century,” and one is reminded of Neko Case’s gorgeous contributions to the New Pornographers, not to mention her continually interesting solo work. Tenderhooks’ careening two-part harmonies bolster some of the less interesting rock-outs like “Flicker Street,” and continue to decorate the album to its conclusion, whether it’s alongside the showy guitar solos of “Always Raining in My Town” or the jumpy playfulness of “Twenty-Two,” which possesses not only pure fun, thanks to the rhythm, but a sophisticated, liquid breakdown and mood-altering key change at the chorus.
There’s no question that Jake Winstrom, on every track the lead singer, is the band’s anchor. Not only is his voice virtuosic and flexible, but it’s pretty much androgynous, making its relationship to Robinson’s harmonies even lovelier and more familial. Without such vocal power this type of music would falter and fade, leaning on instrumentation that could only attempt the deeply moving inflections that the singer gives them. Occasionally neither works, as on “Paper Thin,” when Winstrom leans to the background and lets the guitars strut simplistically along. This fusion of country and rock is something a publicist’s one-sheet (nay, a 500-word review) could easy make ridiculous in quick, toss-away descriptions, but upon listening it more often than not turns nebulous, disparate artifacts into an impressive indie melting pot.