It’s easy to forget that The Hills or Club Heartbreak is Philly-based musician Noah Miller’s first full-length album as Apatheia Sings. Across its 8 tracks, Miller maintains a lush, vivid, and intricate sound, attaining a level of professional quality that would make many established acts jealous. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, however; as beautiful and impressive as the production often is, its professionalism tends to force the less-developed aspects of the music to stand out.
A plucked guitar and a tentative vocal melody open the first track, “Womb Without Cover,” establishing its grounding in indie pop immediately- but around 20 seconds in, layers of sound suddenly bloom from each direction, lifting the music into the ethereal realm occupied by the rest of the album. It’s clear halfway through this first track that Miller’s greatest strength is in his production; rippling marimbas, warm vocal harmonies, and sleigh bells light up the chorus with vibrant colors, glowing with genuine radiance. His songwriting and production style varies, from the Slowdive-y guitars and Phil Collins-y drums of “April Vacation” to the thoroughly Animal Collective inspired “God’s Blues,” but the majority of the stylistic shifts occur seamlessly, glued together with luminous sound. For the most part, this variation stands as a testament to the ease with which he can filter his songwriting through different lenses, but as in the case of the song “Girl on the Shore,” it occasionally shows a lack of focus (or transparency of his influences). Despite some definitely stranger songs in the album’s last half, “Girl on the Shore” is the odd one out; its live drums, laid-back strumming, and storybook lyrics are unexpectedly reminiscent of The Decemberists. It feels rather out-of-place in an album rooted mostly in psychedelic indie pop, and at over 5 minutes, is a tad too long.
However, while “Girl on the Shore” is at most a curious diversion; the least-expected moment on the album comes at the very end. A few minutes into the album’s finale “There’s a Veil Over Philadelphia” is a spoken-word coda. Miller’s voice is extremely present in the center of the mix, and he speaks in a serious and flat tone, hurrying through his lines. The decision to close out The Hills with spoken poetry is unclear, as the rest of the album’s words come across as general romantic stoner wisdom. With this track, he transitions completely into traditional psychedelic lyricism, ranting about “thrusting orgasms into oblivion,” and “blasting and gassing the last remembrance of your children’s age.” It’s a bizarre finish to an album with a primary focus on its sound rather than its lyrics. It’s possible that Miller intended to reveal lyrical themes here that were otherwise only hinted at in earlier songs, or perhaps translate the emotional core of the album directly into spoken words, but these lyrics are jarring and scattered enough that any concrete theme is difficult to discern.
When the sound itself is in focus, The Hills excels. Prior to the poetry, “There’s a Veil” has some of the record’s most intriguing sound design, with clattery percussion, tape echo feedback, and occasional deep washes of bass. The lack of form gives plenty of space for the sonic components to breathe and bleed into each other, seemingly taking on their own organic activity. The fullest realization of Miller’s vision of “shifting light” happens in “Sea and Sky,” as tones are progressively built on top of each other, merging into a pleasant gradient from the high to low ends, filling out the spectrum until the structure crumbles away into a yawning wall of sound. Miller’s talent for creating beautiful sonic environments is undeniable, and as his lyricism progresses, there’s no doubt he’ll be turning out truly great work.
- Beautiful, professional production
- Well-defined aesthetic
- Interesting stylistic variation
- Occasionally unfocused songwriting/lyrics
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