There are ghosts, and they float within the 14 tracks of The Hiders’ Four Letter Town. Both spooky and concrete, the searching lyrics are clear and important, revealing stories of celebration and confusion, of love lost and wisdom found.
A ghost in its own right, the title track is one that lead singer/guitarist Billy Alletzhauser kicked around for years before The Hiders even existed. Although he calls it a “simple song,” he recorded various versions, enveloped in a tricky, drawn-out struggle to harness and reveal the tune’s true essence. Some songs sit and smolder before they rise up to burn and glow. Some apparitions do indeed come alive.
At times, the overall feel speaks of sweeping land, train tracks or the simplest row of straight trees that blend to touch. Other times, a curious, quiet night, a blue-green-gray sky or the echo of the cover of The Hiders’ first album — the black howling wolf. And then it just rocks out. Beyond the lighthearted crush, the lyrics dig into complex situations — the longterm lover by someone’s side and the rich history there, both dark and light. Sometimes a shadowy place, but it’s one you’ll want to revisit.
Between extra verses, catchy guitar riffs and lyrics, keys, sweet harmonies and more, this is The Hiders’ most artistically creative and dense album to date, packed with everything from Country to ’70s Rock to vintage, piano-driven dreams. Some could be called Americana with a melancholic vibe, but fresh and historic sounds spider-crawl out; each layered song telling its own story, standing alone as a musical painting with a definite place in time.
“The only thing I consciously set out to do on this one was to write a lot of lyrics,” Alletzhauser says. No three-minute rule here.
Blue-eyed Alletzhauser drinks Irish coffee, describing the real wolves he encountered recently at a nearby sanctuary. Wearing a simple plaid shirt and jeans, his hair sticks up, jutting out in the back. Even when quiet, it seems as if there’s a constant internal dialogue occurring, that he’s thinking hard. Or maybe he’d rather be playing.
Upstairs from his recording studio, The Batcave, he sits at the dining-room table and there is a strange secretive vibe, as if it’s not a home, but rather a captured hideout with many bizarre collectibles — a pine cone, an enormous painting by artist Victor Strunk, ancient Punk magazines and a random skull. (Deer skull. There’s a full skull chart on the wall). Dr. Phil, the cat, sneaks into the room to check things out.
The Hiders’ current central core includes Alletzhauser, Beth Harris (vocals), Kevin Carlisle (keys) and Glen May (bass), although many others contribute. Always adding talent, The Hiders are very welcoming.
“Too welcoming,” Alletzhauser says, laughing (member turnover has been fairly high over the group’s history). “Yeah, it’s been ridiculously hard. I’ve tried to keep it together. I started this band in my thirties, and that’s a whole different ballgame. But the four of us, through this record, became a good core, so we’ve just tried to bring in people as we can. If people have the desire and they’ve done some homework, we can make it sound good.”
Originally, The Hiders skyrocketed out of Batcave jams, and after the 2006 debut Valentine was recorded in Nashville they gained a startling amount of attention, including being named an “Artist to Watch” on NPR's World Café. Many labels chewed on their work, leading to film score opportunities. Recently, from the 2008 Penny Harvest Field album, “Plastic Flowers” played in the 2009 film Adam. Penny Harvest Field ventured into heavier guitars and drums, a sound influenced by a massive snowstorm, when some musicians were trapped, missing recording sessions.
Alletzhauser explains, “We had to make a lot of decisions to flesh it out and we had to do it quick. That’s why it’s a little more diverse, I guess.”
But on Four Letter Town, The Hiders worked from home, recording at The Batcave and Ultrasuede. The result is an intricate, blended sound “with more overdubbing and experimenting” that gels with the first album’s longing, melodic songs as well as the Rock punch of the second.
“It’s kind of the first two smashed together,” Alletzhauser says, grinning.
Four Letter Town is bigger in scope and harder to grasp on first listen compared to the other releases. As shown in “Hesitation Wounds,” Alletzhauser explains the theme of the album’s songs as “more about conditions. They all seem to have a sense of place, an enforced condition and trying to survive in that condition … there’s a lot of luck involved in your life, where you’re born and when. Some people escape and some people don’t. And it’s hard. It’s not easy. I just think some people don’t get a fair shake.”
When times get tough, Alletzhauser says the band inspires him.
“I don’t know what normal people do with their friends,” he says. “We get together and record or practice or play shows. I don’t have any other hobbies. It’s not like I’m going to start building wicker chairs.”
Alletzhauser shifts uncomfortably when discussing labels and showcases.
“Even when I was young, I didn’t like people looking at me,” he says. “I still don’t. I like making cool music, and performing is something you’ve gotta do.”
Laughing at the irony that he’s become a frontman, he says, “I think sometimes you try harder when it’s against your nature.”
To him, the real joy is buried within the music itself. Recently, someone drove through the badlands while listening to Four Letter Town and that, to Alletzhauser, equals success. Rather than one-hit wonders, he wants to create lasting, quality music, drawing devoted listeners.
As for the rest, timing and luck. Although he makes the contacts and people are finding TV and film homes for the band’s songs, Alletzhauser says, “I’m still surprised by the music sometimes. There’s still something gnawing at me to make it better.”
THE HIDERS (www.thehiders.com) next play Dec. 18 at Northside Tavern with Josh Eagle and The Clifftones.