Howl Mouth is the newest release from Portland’s genre-blurring trio Tall Horse, a Maine band you should know.
[dropcap letter=”T”]he first time I heard Tall Horse was a couple of years ago, at a Down East–sponsored concert at Portland’s State Theatre, a celebration of the Maine music scene with a “Then and Now” theme. The three-piece outfit — guitar, bass, drums — covered Maine country legend Dick Curless’s “Bury the Bottle With Me.” It was electric, loud, and raw, with guitarist and front man Nick Poulin shout-singing through a distortion fuzz the lyrics that Curless had delivered in 1968 with a lilting croon. Few who self-identify as country music fans would likely have pegged it as a country tune.
It was, however, a real barn burner and a clever nod to Tall Horse’s strange lineage. Like Curless — an Aroostook County Yankee whose 1965 classic “A Tombstone Every Mile” helped beat back at the then-growing impression of country music as a strictly Southern product — Tall Horse’s indie-fied, melancholy, lightly twangy rock challenges assumptions about who owns country music.
Of course, a bevy of artists, from Ryan Adams to Lucinda Williams, has been doing this for decades under the banner of alt-country. When Tall Horse released its first record, Glue, in 2014, that seemed like the easiest label. But Glue relied more heavily on acoustic guitar (even some pedal steel) than Tall Horse’s new one, Howl Mouth, where the tunes are noisier, reverb-ier, more soaring. Washed-out guitar lines linger and drift in a very un-country way. It’s a rock album, yessir, though the melodies are rootsy and lyrics elegiac. The easiest comparison is to Seattle’s Band of Horses, who also wear the alt-country brand a bit uncomfortably, and who rock quite hard while still being the sort of outfit you might have first heard on an NPR Americana show.
Who should listen to Howl Mouth? Band of Horses fans, sure. Folks who listened to college radio in the ’90s and have Merle Haggard on their iTunes. And maybe fans of old Dick Curless, curious about his surprising progeny.