Album Review: Hello Emerson debuts ‘Above the Floorboards’

Columbus-based folk group Hello Emerson has been gestating on this album for close to two years now.

Photo Credit: Tiera Suggs

Started by Sam Emerson Bodary in his college dorm, Hello Emerson has grown over as Bodary’s songs found their way into the hands of various other musicians.

Looking at the colophon on the inside of Hello Emerson’s CD (oh yes, you can buy physicals) you’ll be greeted by a wall of text detailing Bodary’s gratitudes to his many collaborators. It feels almost shameful to credit Hello Emerson’s graceful tunes to Bodary, though he is the nexus of it all.

Hello Emerson makes music for long drives, it would probably go well with a few friends and taste best late at night after a day doing things equal parts irresponsible and innocent.

Bodary’s guitar moves either trippingly or flatfootedly alongside his reigned-in voice and verbose lyrics. Moments seem to overwhelm and desensitize in their poeticism, only to nudge you back to attention with beautiful harmonic refrains.

I spoke with Sam, a warm-hearted person that greeted me with a hug and tea upon introduction, last week and our conversation definitely colored my view of this album.

Listening to Above the Floorboards I felt as though I was seeing the realization of tidbits of conversation, offhand notes and thoughts; the final product of years of work. It seems something Sam himself intended, as this album’s creation was colored by pure work in organizing, recording, and gathering funding.

Emerson’s lyrics linger over particulars and enumerate on memories and meanings. The poetry is at times too rapturous and at others lacking, but it’s the way Hello Emerson’s music vacillates almost constantly between the two that cuts so finely into your soul.

Photo Credit: Tiera Suggs

Beautiful vocal harmonies and piano (courtesy Erin Mason and Jack Keating Doran) lift the somber “Seagulls” above a total depressor.

Emerson’s guitar remains a consistently nice presence throughout the album’s 45 minutes as well, nowhere more so than in “Ohio,” probably the most folksy tune here–one I might like to hear a more stripped down version of, too.

Album standouts “Straw” and “Uncle” flutter around small personal moments, caught between haughty introspection and distant solipsism in a haphazard fashion that feels comfortably organic.

“Straw’s” hastily plucked guitar is pulled forward by subtle string arrangements and a steady drumbeat (courtesy Daniel Lawrence Seibert) that really conveys the romantic wistfulness of the lyrics, only for them to fade away as our narrator wraps around his mind one too many times. This is probably the best production on the album, as everything feels so in its place among one another, no one element trying to outshine another.

“Uncle” stands as proof of Bodary’s writing ability. Telling the story of a long night-time drive (this album is really grade-A driving music) with a father and his kid, and all of the thoughts that can pass through one’s head as they sit idly in their car.

The laser-focus of Bodary’s narrative builds at a persistently slow pace to a crescendo that simply disappears like a view passing you by.

But it’s “Flamenco,” which follows “Uncle,” that is the crowning achievement of this album. It’s a song that works almost in spite of itself to quietly devastate, all based around this perfect, melancholy chorus:

“If I lay myself to sleep/will life catch up to me?/I’m waiting outside my house/I’m in my parents’ grey van/flamenco on the radio/will I die alive?”

Where “Uncle” and “Straw” excel in the ability to pull apart tiny little moments, “Flamenco” seems to humble itself in front a greater, much more terrifying stretch of time.

Jumping between different characters and narratives, lyrics seem to move in circles, sometimes making no sense, but always coming back to that single refrain of being young, old, present, and absent–each time expanding the details we can hold on too. The quiet horns that come in the background (courtesy Kyle Kerley) flesh out the mournful tone created in the first verse, and Sam’s voice seems awkward at the most uncannily perfect times.

I’d point to this song if I was trying to describe Hello Emerson to someone else. The group embodies a certain Midwestern workmanship that many of us who grew up on the rust belt internalize and deify to varying degrees.

They feel like professionals simply doing their thing, asking for nothing more than to be listened to. The unpolished quality of their sound makes them feel flawed and real instead of detracting from the music.

Most of all, Hello Emerson feels singular, like something I want to be preserved.

I don’t know how they’ll sound as they become more polished or streamline their process, but I feel like anything after Above the Floorboards won’t be able to capture the particular appeal of this debut. But as long as Hello Emerson keeps turning in on itself from song to song, whatever they produce next will likely be another pleasant surprise to accompany your long drives.

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