Hand Habits : Fun House

hurray for the riff raff life on earth review

In 2019 Hand Habits released their sophomore album placeholder, a career defining, if relatively conservative folk rock record—nothing out of place, thoroughly satisfying, and tightly themed. Two years out from such a cohesive project, Meg Duffy sheds some of those restraints and opens up their sound in a diverse myriad of directions. Their third album as Hand Habits, aptly named Fun House, takes us on a free-wheeling journey through a series of musings equally eclectic as unabashedly idiosyncratic.

A driving beat and straightforward indie instrumentation on opener “More Than Love” belies the variety show that follows. The next track, “Aquamarine,” features a bouncy beat and echoing synths that build a nuanced soundscape while remaining within Duffy’s restrained style. Shuffling, understated percussion and simple acoustic guitar on “No Difference” suddenly takes us back to the sound of placeholder. But barbershop backing vocals and an earworm synth mark new territory, and then suddenly everything twists up in a shuffling flurry of percussion. Later, “Graves” presents the most sparse arrangement of the album, featuring only Duffy and their guitar and their friends. Meanwhile, in stark contrast, “Concrete & Feathers” showcases all the guitar I could have hoped for, all at once. Multiple lines layer over each other—electric leads call and respond, summoning a whole stage of Meg Duffys.

It’s not just variety for its own sake, but rather an ambitious thematic playground of a soundscape for Duffy and company to explore. Producer Sasami Ashworth and engineer Kyle Thomas seem to be quite a team, first working with Duffy on March’s dirt EP, now effectively bringing out the bolder sides of Duffy’s style. Sweeping string arrangements and playful auxiliary percussion throughout subtly elevate each composition. There are multi-layered harmonies on nearly every song, including a feature from Michael Hadreas of Perfume Genius. A tight pickup on Duffy’s guitar produces percussive textures, and the added synths and percussion only ever complement the natural rhythms of their guitar playing.

The second to last song, “Gold/Rust,” is a crowning achievement for Duffy’s new direction. As what once was rust turns to gold the layered acoustic guitars are buried under overblown percussion and glittering synths, mirroring the transmutative lyrics in composition and structure. The concept is encapsulated perfectly when Duffy stretches their usual vocal range to hit a soaring pop chorus in stride: “Everything’s covered in gold!” It’s a beautiful moment that seals the deal for this left-field project as an exploratory commitment to growth. One well worth taking the time to reflect on.

Label: Saddle Creek

Year: 2021

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