(2016 Paper Anchor Music)
Buy the album here starting May 6, 2016
Download a preorder version here
Anna Vogelzang’s triumphant fifth album has been in the works for a year, some songs germinating as far back as 2013. It has been well worth the wait. Each of Hiker’s twelve tracks are memorable, connected by some common themes including the natural world and its animals, how and why we are different from them as humans while accepting what makes us unique in the process. It’s an exploration on human nature. From the first note to the last, what you’ll hear is an artist finding herself, expanding her horizons, passing light through a prism and reflecting back a powerful musical statement. The lyrics are deep and dreamy but not easy, begging the listener to pay attention, to tease out the meanings, to find our own acceptance and examine our own innate qualities.
Vogelzang had plenty of help from ace alternative music producer and performer Todd Sickafoose, whose experience with Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird and others is brought to bear. Vogelzang’s palette is subsequently widened so while the germ of these songs rests with her performances on the banjo, ukulele, guitar and kalimba, the songs are fleshed out with Sickafoose’s bass and keyboards and Shane Edwards’ drums, synths and electronics. Many of the accompanying instruments are muted and/or treated. Sickafoose’s production values frequently bring to mind those of David Lanois, where the effect on the instrument is the instrument itself while the source is somewhat stripped away. The result is a sonic dreamscape where cymbals sizzle, the bass hums, keyboards weep and electronics bubble in the distance. In places the instruments seem to literally breathe the music. Grounding it all are Vogelzang’s vocals, which when overdubbed, resemble a beautiful and gentle choir.
One of the best examples of this is “Reins,” a song that Vogelzang had nearly discarded from some seventy songs she had accumulated, largely from the song-a-week challenge thrown down in her participation in RealWomenRealSongs in 2014. “Reins is a song that came quickly, not just because I was trying to write two songs that day, but because once I began, the words just spilled out,” she wrote in one of her many Kickstarter project updates. “They were words waiting for a vehicle. At its core, “Reins” came from trying to work through feeling oppressed, helpless, and without agency, trying to find what that might sound like. I was also touching on the struggle we have with ourselves on a daily basis to feel like we are enough.” It’s a gorgeous track built on a sparse, snareless drum pattern, and a simple, fingerpicked electric guitar. A multi-tracked vocal refrain brings sweet relief as the song draws to a close.
Here is a video of Vogelzang performing the track with Ben Wolf, and Andrew Young at the Edgewater Hotel in Madison:
Another intriguing aspect is Vogelzang’s foray into alternative rock. “Howl” will no doubt surprise some of her fan base. This one mines pretty familiar territory during the verses but the choruses are something new for Vogelzang, an aggressively joyous sound, the vocals passed through a distorted amplifier. Leonard’s drums are particularly effective, like playing the snare on the fourth beat, or not at all, his cymbal work driving the choruses. Hiker is also littered with monsters, demons and ghosts: “There are ghosts up ahead / Flagging the car down / Behind the tree line / Asking forgiveness.” The album is replete with cryptic phrases like this and “Howl’s” chorus sums the primal instincts: “The fear and the failure / The sheep and the shepherd / The rush to encounter / The chase to the slaughter / The hunting, the history / When we hear them howl we know / That we are just as hungry / And we are just as restless.” “I liked the idea of giving the past – our choices, our histories, our inescapable memories – a specific apparition,” Vogelzang says of the track. “The song uses ghosts as the symbol, but in the same breath alludes to wolves, running in packs, shoulder to shoulder – something that is just as animal as it is human.”
“North” percolates along with a groove similar to Bowie’s “Heroes,” another driving song that strays somewhat from Vogelzang’s folk roots. The lyrics allude to a journey through the Vermillion Cliffs near the Grand Canyon under a blood moon but are entwined with human longing: “When will this be enough for you / When will this be enough for you / When will I be enough?”
“Bear” is the perfect opener to Hiker, a delicate, resonant track that effectively lays down the album’s pretexts. “It’s a song about the sides of ourselves we don’t always want to see – jealousy, darkness, fear, and frustration; it’s about wrestling the wild animal within, the thing we can’t silence and all struggle with, “ Vogelzang says of “Bear.” “It’s also a song about vanquishing the beast and moving forward, finding tools to deal with the rougher days, becoming the person we want to be; it’s about finding the things that separate us from our destructive animal selves.” Lyrical notions expressed in “Bear” will reappear throughout the recording.
Hiker, with its deeply considered lyrics will hold up to numerous, repeated listenings. It’s an album you can scrutinize, unravelling the sharp and succinct statements. Each track bears exploration and the nuances in the instrumentation are a joy to discover, especially with headphones where the intricacies reveal themselves. Vogelzang seems to enter a different pantheon with Hiker, an area occupied by Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Jane Siberry and those who are able to summon magic that is woven into the fabric of their creations.
“To be born entangled / To be born alone / To be here voracious / To be here at all,” from “Friction/Phillip” may be a good summation of Hiker but perhaps the best inference comes from the drawing in the album’s liner notes, a caricature of Vogelzang complete with antlers and emblazoned with a banner that reads, “I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.”