Tobias Hengeveld – All The Lines Are Down

Tobias Hengeveld - All The Lines Are Down

Tobias Hengeveld - All The Lines Are Down

Though his fiddle and whistle skills aren’t quite virtuosic, there are an uncanny number of parallels between Aussie folkster Tobias Hengeveld and Chicago’s Andrew Bird. Both of them showcase the expressive capabilities of the acoustic guitar throughout their work, all the while imbuing the songs with a sense of striking austerity. They’ve both recorded and performed with crack teams of supporting session players, and have released albums this year that feature late-afternoon pastoral landscapes on their covers. Each of them dresses impeccably well.

Much like Bird did when he left Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Bowl of Fire in pursuit of a solo career, All the Lines Are Down finds Hengeveld stepping out of his supporting roles in Scout Hall and the Night Bell to take the helm with a proper solo release. With nine tracks that play up Hengeveld’s dulcet vocals, the album makes for a warm and hypnotic collection of organic folk that soothes the listener even as it broods with tales of isolation and regret. Yet, whereas Bird will occasionally lighten the mood with moments of sprightliness, Hengeveld seems content to keep any spontaneous bursts of energy at bay with a level of mellowness not seen since the last round of coffeehouse gigs.

“Giant Red Wave” establishes the album’s affable vibes from the outset; Hengeveld’s dreamy narrative and delicate guitar work are bolstered by slow-moving string harmonies, piano inflections, and even a touch of harmonica and whistling. The song’s first half is on par with most of the album’s tone: dense and pensive. Yet the final two minutes find Hengeveld and his assembled band venturing into an uncharacteristically optimistic instrumental jam. A more liberal application of these brighter tempos would prevent All the Lines Are Down from becoming such a weighty affair.

Up next is “Make a Noise,” the sturdiest example of Hengeveld’s songwriting. Expertly orchestrated, the string section is now more up front in the mix, which provides the track with an ethereal presence despite such bluesy guitar work. Hengeveld’s vocal melodies are at their most memorable on this cut, despite lyrics that are occasionally rendered indecipherable due to a thick Aussie accent. It sounds like the song of a wanderer, and at less than three minutes in length, it’s one of the album’s most succinct and affecting tunes.

The remaining seven tracks all flirt with many of the same styles, moods, and textures. “Thunderbolt’s” features a lumbering groove in which the drums and bass produce some ominous rumbles. Hengeveld’s melismatic vocals on “Sawdust” (“Sawdust / your lights now fall on everything”) bring a mourning quality to a track that seems afraid to truly soar. “On the Night You Were Born” is heavy on atmosphere, with unobtrusive bass and synth lines setting the stage for an occasional electric guitar lick and some he said/she said vocal exchanges. The album’s narrative focus continues to be obvious with lines like, “On the night you were born / your mother barefoot and padding across the floor / to a radio static hum / and the smell of dinner.”

His songwriting and orchestration may bear similarity to those of Andrew Bird, but Tobias Hengeveld’s vocals have more in common with the National’s Matt Behringer than anyone else on the indie scene. Behringer may lay claim to a more formidable baritone, but both men possess a style of delivery in which sultry textures trump the clear dictions and subtle inflections of more expressive singers. With the acoustic instruments typically in slumber mode, it would’ve been a pleasant surprise to find Hengeveld pushing his range a bit further now and again. All the Lines Are Down may lack the emotional highs and lows of more adventurous folk albums, but as the soundtrack to your next study session, it makes for a compelling selection.