It makes sense that Amy Klein and Catherine Tung met at a Lightning Bolt show. It’s not that the music they make as Hilly Eye sounds similar to or even inspired by the chaotic noise-skronk assault of Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson; it’s that they embody the same type of restless creative energy. Though both women attended Harvard and were involved in college radio there, they didn’t begin making music together until 2009 when mutual friends brought the two together. While they share certain biographical traits—both are writers, Klein on her Tumblr and Tung for publications like the Rumpus—they have different musical histories. While Klein logged hours on the road playing guitar in Titus Andronicus, Tung, according to a recent interview, didn’t learn the drums till about three years ago, not long before Hilly Eye began to take shape.
Reasons To Live is the duo’s first album, and it sounds like a statement of purpose even if the exact beliefs expressed aren’t always easy to parse. It’s both a full-throated howl of self-affirmation and a tentative exploration of identity. And in refusing to choose between the competing poles of rock’s violent excess and folk music’s delicate contemplation, they’ve made a record that will undoubtedly be misunderstood by those looking for Titus Andronicus II: Amy Strikes Back. It works in a relatively simple musical register—the rumbling drums and squalling guitar dynamics of late ’90s slowcore, desolate Neil Young records, hushed lullaby harmonies—while exploring nebulous or even contradictory themes and ideas.
How can you celebrate your homeland while still questioning it? How can you find a sense of community while staying in a state of constant motion? How can you become the person you want to be without giving up who you are? These are the questions Hilly Eye is grappling with, and while they’re not the most original or eccentric set of problems, they’re essential for any young band (or person) looking to get by with integrity intact. “Don’t bring me down/I don’t want to lose my ground,” sings Klein on “Louisville” as the guitars crumble around her. It’s one of the album’s two songs named for a specific place, the other being the volcanic crawl “Jersey City,” which ends with Klein crying, “You’ve got an appetite for destruction.” As is often the case with psychedelia, the threat of physical harm lurks in each seemingly utopian vista.
The record’s politics are both totemic and personal, perhaps no more so than on the swirling, joyfully tossed brick of a track “Amnesia.” No doubt tipping her hat to Patti Smith, Klein sings, “Oh glory/Oh Gloria/My country it lies.” It’s the album’s finest moment, a precious alchemy of the band’s bare-bones aesthetic and its wild ambitions. Other songs are less direct but no less stirring in their engagement with our national mythology, like the chugging post-rock freak-out “American Rail” and the glacial “Almanac.” There aren’t a ton of lyrical specifics to glean from the record—the language tends to be broad and ambiguous—and that’s not always helped by the recording, which tends to push Klein’s vocals beneath the tumult of guitars. But when she does rise over the din, like on the Sonic Youth-like punk swarm of “Animal,” it’s invigorating and empowering.
“You walk like a girl, but you’re a liar/You talk like a girl, but you’re a liar,” insists Klein toward the record’s end. If there’s a limitation here, it’s that too often the record sounds cautious in its rage and indignation, perhaps unwilling to let that “fuck you” swagger define it. The songs could also stand to be more expansive; many of the tracks apparently grew out of elaborate jam sessions, so why not let them run free? Forming an identity is a difficult task, and Reasons To Live is honest about the painful and revelatory nature of that process.