Venna – Third Generation Hymnal

“Sing along if you want. Knowing the words is not required.”

Who wouldn’t want to listen to an album with that kind of tagline? After reading that description for Venna by Venna (FVBV – a latinate FUBU?), I assumed that Third Generation Hymnals would be filled with soaring harmonies and rousing group vocals – the kind of thing that you would feel compelled to shout along with, even if, as Venna aptly noted, you don’t know the words. In short, I was expecting a folksy sound like that of Good Old War, only perhaps a bit rowdier. And though there are a few very brief patches on Venna’s Third Generation Hymnal that adhere to my bombastic preconceptions, overall the album is very subdued. It’s primarily driven by the singular vocal performance of Heather Hladish, who along with her husband (and former The Felix Culpa frontman) Mark Hladish, form the entirety of Venna. Given the expectations raised by Venna’s tagline and Mark’s pedigree, Third Generation Hymnals is not at all disappointing, but it is certainly not what I expected. It’s a good album, but not because you’ll want to sing along.

Vocals, though not of the sing-a-long variety, are the key to Third Generation Hymnal. Heather Hladish’s distincitive alto, which slides in somewhere among Greta Salpeter and Natalie Merchant’s beautiful deliveries, is the true focal point of the record. Acoustic guitars, simple drum beats, and occasional ancillary instrumentation (such as keys or horns) will occasionally flit by, but it’s very clear that Third Generation Hymnal is a vehicle for Heather’s voice.

The album opens with its first single, ‘Married’ (the video for which can be found here). It’s a slow moving folk-lament that for the first minute is simply Heather singing over a set of light guitar strums and time-keeping snaps. When a full band arrangement eventually arrives, it does so with powerful tempo and rhythm changes that push the song towards moving and beautiful new ground. This type of simple construction is the backbone of this album, which makes for a very relaxing listening experience.

The earthy feel that permeates the whole of Third Generation Hymnal is on full display in ’12 Shades to the Wind,’ with its stomping drumbeat and down-home, troubled-heartland lyrics (“I’m sorry to say that I did not keep the faith,” cries one particularly effective line). And for a brief flash we’re even given a glimpse of that group-sing-a-long feel with a short group vocal, though the arrangement lasts for only one line and never returns. While part of me feels like the restraint required to feature such an element for only one line is admirable, another (much larger) part of me thinks that that part was awesome and just wants to hear more of it. Thank you for your sympathy as I handle this difficult internal conflict.

Anyway, as the album rumbles along, we hear frantically strummed mandolins (‘Quitting Contest’), a more traditionally upbeat Americana tune (that of the oddly named potential single, ‘Sweden Is the Reason’), and a glimpse of the beautiful harmonies of which Venna is capable (‘Danger’). All of these elements are great in their own regard, but they feel somewhat fleeting. Which is not to say that these songs aren’t enjoyable – I’m sure lots will take to ‘Sweden Is the Reason,’ and I’m partial to ‘Danger’ myself – but it appears to me that there is a great deal of unrealized potential here. If they haven’t fully realized it yet, Venna has at least touched on this considerable cache of what could be.

In the album’s second half, ‘Meet Me In the Hammock’ uses a droning feedback to push the song along. It’s a technique that is commonplace for a band like Sigur Ros, but to hear it in a folk-Americana song is quite surprising and ultimately very effective. Though the song evolves as it moves along, it never bursts into the explosive climax that it hints at. It’s at this point that it becomes clear that Venna is probably a very impressive live band. Their songs are all built upon subtle changes in dynamic that don’t translate all that well into our hyper-compressed world of digital recording. Such subtleties would be better served by a live venue. And I mean no disrespect to the recording, as the production is excellent here. It’s just that, as the record nears its end, it becomes apparent that some of the character and charm inherent to Venna’s style of play is probably lost in the translation process of the studio.

Third Generation Hymnal‘s penultimate track is ‘Oh No’ which, as someone who does not have a child of their own, I can’t help but find a little obnoxious. The song is an open-room recording of Heather gently singing a tune in the background while a very young child ‘sings’ in the sonic foreground. The two voices end up playing off one another and singing a refrain of “oh no, oh no, oh no,” and though I see the intended cuteness, I’m inclined to believe that many listeners (myself among them) will be skipping this track on future listenings. The song’s title, unfortunately, is an ill omen.

I may have wanted more sing-a-long moments, and I may have wanted Venna to more fully develop their sonic ideas, but I can’t for one second deny that the album’s finale, ‘Lovin’s For Fools,’ is a powerful conclusion to a solid début record. Keeping the open-room recording sound from ‘Oh No,’ ‘Lovin’s For Fools’ begins with a quietly strummed acoustic guitar before Heather enters with a flowing melody line which blossoms into a truly gorgeous falsetto-mining chorus. When the song moves past its halfway point, we’re greeted with a strong, warm set of harmonies; it’s a very effective moment, enhanced by the intimacy of the live-sounding recording. It’s also the closest that Third Generation Hymnal comes to making me want to sing along, even if I don’t know the words.

This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

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