(The whole album can be bought or streamed here)
Last month, Plymouth-based singer-songwriters Jake Hill and Hayley Sabella unveiled their new project to the world on a snowy night at The Spire, a church that’s recently been turned into a performing arts center. They call themselves “Billington Sea.”
I was fairly familiar with Hill’s music before I saw him play as part of Billington Sea. He’s a staple at the local bars, where he plays his rootsy folk, either solo or with his backing band, Deep Creek. But beyond this, I knew Hill had more to offer than simply songs that are fun to listen to when you’re drunk.
In preparation for the release show, I wanted to familiarize myself with the music of both halves of Billington Sea.
I had never heard any of Hayley Sabella’s music, so I fired up her 2014 release King Soloman and put on the headphones.
I think most artists, even the most popular and critically acclaimed, have this very specific sound that makes it easy for them to be picked out of a group. Although this is useful in recognition, it creates a somewhat homogenization of their music. Soon enough you start hearing dreaded phrases like “interchangeable choruses.” King Solomon does not fall into this category.
The first thing I notice about King Solomon is that each piece is exceedingly different. Here, she sounds like Joni Mitchell, here’s Lucinda Williams, oh and here’s some Sufjian Stevens. It keeps you listening because you don’t want to miss anything; miss the next chord change or the next falsetto string section or whispering trumpet.
It’s difficult to categorize, which in some cases is a bad thing but in this case just leads to a more transforming sound for the album. You’d want to call it “folk” or “Americana” because those are fashionable terms to call music that’s played with an acoustic guitar nowadays, but besides the running banjo through most of the songs, they don’t really resemble anything rootsy.
On the track “Vanity,” the most important moment on the album, to me anyway, happens when the song makes a move about half way through. The track begins similarly to a few other songs on the album: A little bluesy, minor chords, a two-step drum beat, as Sabella sings about a girl giving “her dandelion away.”
But after two choruses, the song stops, then slows. Then it’s just Sabella’s guitar.
But it picks up again, and she sings “Make some trouble, make some noise.” Something strange happens now, as she abandons her typically subdued voice, her smooth tone and shouts into the microphone, shouts a seasick chant to the gray ocean or to a lover or to both. It’s such a real moment that’s so difficult to catch on record, a moment that so many albums can’t seem to get right.
Whereas Sabella’s King Solomon record is less ordinary in its makeup and might be a bit more ambitious in its song structure, the Billington Sea EP find it’s roots and balance in its simplicity. It seeks to create a song, a true song, using elements we’ve heard before, which in this case works, and works well.
It’s confidence that you find when you listen to these songs; confidence in the songwriting, the song craft, the lyrics and the talent. There’s a sureness to every track.
It’s important to note that “Billington Sea” is more than just coffee house folk music. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s not something to simply hear while you wait in a line. This album merits an active listen.
”Let it Pass” features some of Hill’s most moving lyrics on the record. “What are we gonna leave?” he and Sabella sing in a two-part harmony. “Some leave a beautiful mess, and some just leave their dinners.”
“Red-Tailed Romance,” the second track on the five-song EP, does something that a song hasn’t done in a long time, to me anyways. It’s the perfect encapsulation of how four chords can make you feel something, remember a moment that may have changed something about your life or may have never happened at all. With each chord, it’s clear, the image that Sabella sings, the emotions she creates are actual and you can feel them in your gut. A late summer wildflower road. I may have seen this at some point in my life, or I may have not. But I’m not sure it matters.
Everything in music is so spread out and disassociated nowadays. I stream the first few seconds of a hundred songs before I listen to one. I don’t recognize or feel like listening to any music that comes on the radio. I can count on two hands the number of albums I’ve listened to fully in the past year. It’s really a terrible feeling.
But we’re lucky to have local artists around who aren’t just “good because they’re local” but are instead “good because they write damn good music.” It makes me feel a little bit closer to music again, you know?