Saturday, March 26, 2016

Esto - Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs

I like sipping tea by the fire and listening to folky Bon Iver jams as much as the next guy, but is there anything more thrilling than a well-executed summer album? Most of the records at the top of my all-time favorites list seem tailor-made for moments with the windows down, cruising the streets with friends, getting sunburned, and singing along. We're reaching the time of year now where we will be hearing a lot of those types of albums, but it's tough to imagine one of them capturing the essence of a perfect summer quite like Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs, the debut full-length from Michigan-based singer/songwriter Esto. Bottom line, this is one of those albums that you should drop everything to listen to right now, because this guy is the real deal.

In interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Esto is the folk-pop project of Blake Morgan, a member of the professional choral ensemble Cantus, a graduate of the voice program at Western Michigan University, and one of my very best friends. In other words, I'm biased here, but since I've never been or claimed to be objective in my music criticism, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone.

Morgan wrote Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs about the summer of 2010, which he spent working at a summer program at Michigan Technological University. Michigan Tech, in turn, is based in Houghton and Hancock, two small Upper Peninsula towns located across a river from one another, and connected by a distinctive lift bridge. While the album is most certainly about a specific place, though, it also reflects a moment in life that a lot of us probably value beyond measure: a golden youthful summer. Picture it: you're a year or two past your high school graduation, but still another year or two away from the end of college and from the obligations of the real world; you're old enough to live life with some semblance of independence—whether that means staying out late with friends or taking spontaneous road trips by yourself—but still young enough to have minimal day-to-day responsibilities; and you're also aware enough to know that intoxicating summers like this are as fleeting as they are rare—that you have to cherish them as they're happening, lest they slip away too soon.

The greatest success of Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs is that it successfully translates these transcendent moments of youth and freedom into a complete musical journey. On "Sheldon Ave," the album's proper opener, we witness Morgan's arrival in Houghton, complete with big hopes for the summer to come and requisite confusion about the batshit crazy local street layouts; on "Houghton, MI," he takes us through a veritable photo book of memories, from "downtown city walks" to evenings spent hanging out in coffee shops until close, all awash in a "small town, summertime glow"; and on "Bridgefest," Morgan remarks "I can't believe towns like this exist," surrounded by a vibrant array of strings and horns that perfectly bring to life the limitless possibilities of a perfect summer.

Incorporating elements of folk, pop, jazz, and even 80s arena rock, Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs is an album that thrives not just on its relatable thematic subtext, but also on the twists and turns of its musical construction. Some songs, like the aforementioned "Houghton, MI" or the lazy, lilting "Brockway Mountain Dr," are simplistic and stripped down, with nothing but voice, acoustic guitar, drums, and the odd vocal harmony. Other songs, like "Bridgefest" or the climactic "Calumet," are fully fleshed out, sparkling with saxophone, trumpet, oboe, flute, violin, viola, cello, upright bass, or even gang vocals. Heck, set highlight "Quincy Mine" opens with a burst of brass, flips into full speed with a jazzy vocal riff, and peaks with a soaring guitar solo straight out of an 80s power ballad. Suffice to say that these songs try out a lot of different musical flourishes, and almost all of them pay off.

Morgan keeps the themes from getting stale as well. Not every song here is a travelogue about the beauty of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. "Quincy Mine" delves into the history of the area, recalling Houghton's roots as a copper-mining community, and even injecting some tumultuous worker strife into the proceedings. "Breakers" and "Mouse in the Couch," on the other hand, both show off Esto's quirkier side. The former takes on a tongue-in-cheek tone as Morgan recalls one of the first lessons he learned while living in Houghton: don't eat the pepperoni pizza from the Michigan Tech least unless you want to puke it back up. The latter, meanwhile, is about, well…a mouse in a couch. Crashing at a friend's house during his summer in Houghton, Morgan comes home late to find that his couch bed is now being occupied by a rodent. "I will not sleep with that mouse," he sings during the chorus: seems like a reasonable stance.

At first, it may seem odd to hear these these two weird, quirky songs in the middle of a record that is mostly serious or reflective. But then again, the things that we all remember about our perfect summers (or whatever experiences we treasure most in life) are not necessarily the serious or noble ones. Sometimes, it's the crazy or even awful things that happened along the way that stick with us and elicit laughter and memory years after the fact. I know this from all the stupid shit I myself tried to pull in college—most of it with Blake as my partner-in-crime—so it's nice to see those types of life moments and those elements of his personality represented here.

With that said, Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs is at its best when Morgan embraces introspection, and album closer "Calumet" is the perfect example. Like many other songs on this record, "Calumet" is about a place in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. However, while the song plays its specificity in such a way that is obviously very personal to Morgan, the core meaning is far more universal. "I will never, ever forget/The sunset we saw in Calumet" goes the gang vocal refrain that closes the song. While I don't doubt that Blake did see plenty of gorgeous sunsets during his time in the Upper Peninsula, I prefer to read this song as a metaphor—not just for the end of a perfect summer, but also for the end of youth. There's an elegiac wistfulness to this tune—from the gentle, dusky lilt of the melody to the slight hint of desperation in Morgan's voice as he sings the chorus—that betrays what Blake is thinking as he leaves Houghton behind: that things will never be this way again, that this perfect summer can't and won’t be replicated, and that life only allows you to be young and carefree for so long.

That's the lingering lesson to be learned from Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs, and that's what makes it such a great debut album. Morgan hits a lot of different musical styles and talking points throughout these 46 minutes, but it all coalesces into something greater than the sum of its parts with the rousing conclusion to "Calumet." Half concept album, half travelogue journalism, 100% from the heart, Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs is one of the year's best albums, and easily the strongest debut I've heard so far. Whether you're headed into a youthful summer of freedom, or looking back at summers past, I'd be willing to guarantee that just about everyone will find something to relate to here.

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