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Artist: Hawaii

Album: Hawaii

Label: Paper Bag

Review date: Sep. 24, 2003

“Shooting Star,” the first song on Hawaii’s self-titled debut, is misleading in at least two respects. Its lyrics, which recount a secure, dreamy post-lullaby moment from childhood, could not have less to do with the rest of the album’s widely varied and diversely narrated tales of romantic trauma. Secondly, Hawaii’s two members – real-life couple Sam Goldberg and Samantha Terry – harmonize their voices on the song’s chorus. Perhaps intending to confound coed tradition, where harmonies and melismas usually abound, Goldberg and Terry do not meet up for the remainder of the album.

Which is probably the way it has to be. Despite being written almost entirely in the second person, Hawaii’s lyrics are oddly solipsistic, like a love letter destined for the garbage pail, or an apostrophe to the empty half of the bed. When Goldberg intones on the chorus of “Break You”, the album’s first single, “Am I the one that could make you happy? / I don’t know, don’t want to bring you down,” it’s clear that his words are meant for somebody but that they are delivered to no one. Hearing Terry echo back in response would have been predictable, forgivable, perhaps even enjoyable, but also thematically irresponsible. However deep the connection between Hawaii’s two members might be, the characters that populate their songs rarely connect with anyone.

Disenchantment, indeed, is the attitude towards which most of the songs strive. Not disenchantment as a world-weary pose, mind you, but rather the mental state of people who no longer see anything at all magical taking place in the world about them. Terry’s first song, “Sleeping In”, chastises a lover for leaving early, but only because it shatters her delusions of power in the relationship. Goldberg’s narrators are similarly beaten down by a self-imposed realism: “I guess it’s meant to be,” he sings on “Three Thousand Miles.” “I’m out here on my own. Now I wonder when I’ll see you again.”

From moment to moment Hawaii executes its material with admirable professionalism. “Break You”, perhaps the most traditionally romantic song on the album, is a full-throated pop song appropriate for the intelligent teen movie that Hollywood has yet to make. “Sleeping In” hides a subtle undercurrent of bitterness beneath a sunny lead guitar line and sweet vocals, which only makes the song that much more disconcerting and heartbreaking. Both songs sound wonderfully effortless – not crafted so much as launched into the world fully formed, as though they could not have been written any other way. It is instantly appealing stuff.

Perhaps predictably for a first effort, however, the album suffers from its creators’ desire to cast a broad net. Hawaii write from a number of different perspectives, describing a number of different situations, and the results betray a certain lyrical and musical imprecision. “Three Thousand Miles” plods when it should swagger, and Goldberg’s repeated use of the nickname “baby blue,” meant to sound like a sly come-on, no doubt, just sounds dopey, like an outdated piece of American slang popping up in a French movie. The most problematic track has to be “Winter Coat”, which, while resting on a single thinly veiled metaphor, is a certifiably momentum-killing cabaret song thrown down in the middle of the album.

An air of confusion surrounds a good many of the songs as well, as though no one was quite sure what they were supposed to be about. The mid-tempo lead guitar of “Heart Strings” recalls a number of feelings – anticipation, love, and loss – without conveying any one of those, and the words are similarly uncertain: “You may say many sweet things / Make a circle with your heart strings.” The speaker’s ambivalence is clear enough from the first half of that line, but the second half remains impenetrable. If “Heart Strings” is meant to be a love song, it sounds too mournful; if it’s meant to be about unrequited love, it sounds too wistful; if it’s meant to be a break-up song, it sounds too suggestive of other emotions. Ultimately, it winds up as none of the above.

The problem, it seems, is that Goldberg and Terry are simply too good at writing in the indie rock mode – try as they might to branch out, they keep coming back to a catchy, three-chord formula. There is nothing at all wrong with such a formula, and producer Dave Newfeld, who produced the last album by Hawaii’s labelmates Broken Social Scene, keeps things interesting with all of the hallmarks of what someone somewhere must have called the Toronto Sound – atmospheric sounds, layers and layers of static, and varying levels of clarity. (Incidentally, the album’s best track is the instrumental “Beautiful Storm,” whose two-chord riff starts out as a whisper and gradually becomes louder and nearly overpowering – a great example of what a good songwriter can do with the barest elements, and what a good producer can do with an off-hand composition.)

Problems with focus are inherent to finding a voice. It’s easier to think about a “relationship album” in broad terms – presenting situations and concepts – and much more difficult to flesh those terms out without a wealth of personal experience. Experimenting with a sound is also natural - although Goldberg and Terry are effective enough working in the parameters of indie rock that branching out with various tempos and styles just buries their real strengths. It’s clear enough from their debut, however, that beneath the superfluous adornment, Hawaii have a bright future ahead.

By Tom Zimpleman

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