Hand Habits - placeholder - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Hand Habits - placeholder

by Mark Moody Rating:8 Release Date:2019-03-01
Hand Habits - placeholder
Hand Habits - placeholder

On placeholder’s album closer ‘the book on how to change part ii’ Meg Duffy (aka Hand Habits) lets us know “the book on how to change wasn’t written in one day”.  Change oftentimes is gradual and not something easily measured.  And don’t expect Duffy to go changin’ to try and please ya or anything like that either.  But certainly, the eleven songs and one brief interlude evidence an evolution in their sound.  Cutting loose from the role of Kevin Morby’s lead guitarist Duffy stole away to Justin Vernon’s April Base studio for their second album and emerged with a low powered narcotic gem.  The album glides effortlessly similar to Duffy’s debut, but setting placeholder apart are the moments where the loosely slung bicycle chain that moves us forward catches hard in the teeth.  Whether that is in the many gloriously unanticipated choruses or the intermittently warm tube amp glow of Duffy’s guitar work, those spots give placeholder its “quiet storm” as Smokey Robinson once put it.  

Simply said, the opening title track is one of the loveliest sounding songs committed to tape in the last several years.  Duffy’s feather-lite vocals break in all the right places to create brief moments that your ear hopes recur over and over.  Thankfully they do and they are punctuated by bursts of guitar over April Base wizards’ Brad Cook’s and Zach Hanson’s seamless rhythm work.  The gentle melody glosses over a sad refrain of always being second best.  The following ‘can’t calm down’ buzzes along more in tune with its anxiety riddled topic.  The steady beat mimics an inability to be soothed asking what if “I don’t have that in my bloodline”. 

The balance of the first half of the album has two tracks that smoke but never fire in ‘pacify’ and the revisited ‘yr heart (reprise)’ that sandwich a tear in your beer country weeper.  The bookended songs have a lazy ebb and flow to them that recall Duffy’s first album, but it’s likely selfish to wish for sparks to emerge on every track.  The gently sweeping ‘jessica’, powered by piano and a shuffle of drums, is another matter.  The futility of ‘holding out for someone and your heart gets hollowed out’ by simultaneously trying to forgive and forget makes for a heartbreaking turn as Jessica’s name is gently repeated.

The vaporwave interlude of ‘heat’ makes you wonder if the second half of the album will erupt into something fierier.  Thankfully the heat only refers to a recurring lyrical theme as the pulse barely quickens over placeholder’s balance.  There are a few songs that track the rhythm of the album openers.  The guitar-driven ‘what’s the use’ soars to as high of heights as anything on the album in gentle washes of synth-driven strings.  While the mournful ‘what lovers do’ has Duffy pushing her vocals into different corners of the country-inflected song. 

Though subtle, the Brian Wilson psychedelic tinge of ‘are you serious?’ works masterfully with the simply tapped drum rim.  The song furls slowly like sheer sheets hung on the line with barely a breeze to dry them.  A broken relationship is at the center - “you were out of reach and I was out of touch” - but it’s so delicately displayed that the emptiness is felt in the tone more than the lyrics.  More understated songs like ‘wildfire’ and ‘guardrail/pwrline’ have the same gentle folkiness of current label mate, Adrianne Lenker, without much of a tweak to interrupt their flow.  Even lines like ‘your leader’s out of line’ seem damning when read, but Duffy’s ultra-calm delivery makes it sound like there is hardly an objection to be raised. 

Primarily placeholder drifts along like last year’s beautiful Cranberry by Austin-based duo Hovvdy.  It’s a gentle journey broken up by exactly the right amount of hooky choruses, varied instrumentation (like the album ending sax outro), and well-timed ripples.  Most importantly though Duffy has created a strong undercurrent whose pull begs for repeated listens.  Given how subtly they deliver bad news it’s the type of album that late in the night after many listens and numbed by one too many glasses of wine you are left feeling immensely sad without understanding why.  But most importantly not wanting to let go of the moment.


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