Honeychurch – Makes Me Feel Better

Makes Me Feel Better

I was lucky enough to meet Larissa Hopwood of Honeychurch on a recent midday browse through trusty Siren Records in the picturesque Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, Pa. Though the day itself was bright and pleasant, my mood was not, having absorbed a number of blows to my fragile psyche over the preceding week. Ms. Hopwood’s friendly warmth was like water to a thirsty dog, and I actually managed to hold my end of a conversation for over a minute, during which I learned that the band she and her husband Shilough fronted had been well reviewed in the very magazine I was purchasing. Intrigued, I plied her for information until she broke down under my withering barrage and just gave me some free merch already. No seriously, I was curious – if for no other reason than the fact that little suburban Doylestown had already produced more than its fair share of cultural wonders. Novelist James Michener, librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, lusty pop hellion Pink, and the immortal mop-headed dingbat Justin Guarini of American Idol fame all hail from this central Bucks County hamlet; how much more star power could it sustain? Well I don’t know if Makes Me Feel Better will propel Honeychurch to gender-bending heights of fame or inspire lengthy Hollywood spectacles, but it definitely made me feel better – much better than Justin Guarini.

Taking a dreamy Red House Painters approach to folk-rock with slightly less melancholy and more country touches, Honeychurch manages to stay grounded yet still allow itself to drift into sad and pretty wistfulness. Much like fellow southeast Pennsylvanians Matt Pond PA, Honeychurch can summon a thoroughly disarming moment of teary melody that makes you feel as though you’ve just lost an irreplaceable lover when in fact you may have never even had one. The elegiac “Chancery Lane” does this wonderfully, its chorus lovely enough to make your chin tremble as cellos and violins saw and swoon in the background. It makes good use of its lengthy running time as well, repeating that chorus over and over, its beauty undiminished by repetition. The similar mood and angelic backing vocals of “From the Sky” extend the blissful reverie further, and it could go on forever as far as I’m concerned. Can’t help thinking of a countrified Folk Implosion here, Shilough sounding a lot like Lou Barlow with some gentle strumming and drumming behind him. Either way, these are two glorious songs.

Although these Shilough Hopwood compositions shine, Honeychurch also makes room on Makes Me Feel Better for a generous amount of covers, among them a heartbreaking version of Neil Young’s “Birds” sung sweetly by Larissa. Sturdy numbers from Dolly Parton and bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley are covered with taste and a healthy sheen of husband-and-wife harmonies to help the sorrowful mood go down. Steeped in tradition, these songs are more reserved in their construction and maybe more mature in their emotionalism, but I admit a special weakness for the exuberant sentimentality of Shilough’s melodies and chord changes. Still, the band’s taste in covers and its agility in making them their own (though I admit to being unfamiliar with either of the originals) reveal a sensitivity and subtlety welcome in any band seeking to combine new and old methods of expressing melancholy.

Drummer Stefan Baker contributes a fine minor-key folk ballad that reminded me of the forgotten (by me anyway) Hank Dogs, and guest musician Vincent Asaro pens a timeless, rueful tune with which to woo back the sweetheart of your rodeo. The whole disc is really quite deep in quality songs, effective but unobtrusive playing and tender vocals. They know how to end the disc right as well. After all the commiserating that has come before it, Makes Me Feel Better closes with the reassuring “Honeychurch Loves You,” sporting soothing harmonies and lines like “when you’re out there on your own – when you’re in your bedroom all alone – we’re thinking of you – because we love you.” Awwwww, Honeychurch! Luckily this record didn’t suck, because it would’ve been tough to trash it after such an effective appeal to my need for approval. What the hell, I love you too, Honeychurch.

Oh, and Doylestown: regarding Justin Guarini – all is forgiven.