I really wanted to hate “Smiling Politely,” the new album by Hillmouse, AKA Columbia singer-songwriter Tyler Gordon.
It starts off with one of my pet-peeve indie music cliches, an ambient track with vocal samples from some obscure speech. The name Hillmouse is insufferably cute, as is the title of the album. And Gordon, also the leader of the band Barnwell, has one of those trembling, emo-style voices that drips with exaggerated sincerity.
But this music is charming as hell, and it eventually just wears you down. Gordon favors an acoustic-to-electric approach on most of the songs, starting with a stripped-down intro and building into full rock arrangements with surging, chiming guitars and goosebump-inducing choruses.
Just about every song on “Smiling Politely” is a winner, taking shopworn indie rock cliches and somehow breathing life into them.
After the aforementioned ambient intro, “No Brightside” kicks in with a striking first line, “What if there is no bright side?” over a churning layer of guitars and a hiccupping beat (courtesy of Seth Ely). Gordon doesn’t look back, moving through hushed, country-tinged ballads (“2015”), loping Tom Petty-style roots-rockers (“High Demand,” “Easy To Love”) and intimate, mostly acoustic folk (“Paperweight”).
Gordon played virtually everything but the drums on “Smiling Politely,” and he and producer Kenny McWilliams do a great job making these tracks sound like a full band playing. You’ll swear some of these songs were cut live at Archer Avenue Studio. There’s none of the airtight, cold precision you sometimes hear with one-man-band projects.
There’s nothing new here. You’ll hear traces of power pop a la Matthew Sweet, some crunchy, Weezer-style stomp riffs, and various other touchstones but it really works, and Gordon has a knack for ear-catching lyrical moments — see: “Call me over when you’re making trouble” or “Are you praying just so you won’t feel alone?”
“Smiling Politely” isn’t perfect. There are moments when Gordon doesn’t rise above the generic guitar-rock foundation of his music, and his desperately sad vocal delivery wears thin after a while.
But overall, this is one of those rock albums that is greater than the sum of its parts.