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Album Review: Ash Reiter, “Hola”

Ash Reiter, "Hola"While observers continue to talk of the album format being all but dead in the age of digital downloads, Ash Reiter represents a subset of independent artists who still hold the art form of the album in high regard. With her second full length album, Hola, Reiter has not only gone the distance to advance her music and perfect the production of her songs, she has also made great strides in the art of crafting a cohesive album.

At only ten songs, Hola is concise and to the point where her debut, Paper Diamonds, was sprawling (fifteen songs is a stretch for a single album these days, even for established artists like Gotye and St. Vincent). The challenge for a ten song album, versus a fifteen song album, is to ensure not only that the listening experience has graceful continuity, but also that every song is hit-worthy. On both counts, Hola scores big time.

On the continuity front, take, for instance, the overall feel of the record. Ash stated in her 2011 Parlour to Parlour interview that, in her view of a balanced pop record, the ratio of uptempo to folky or emotional songs will skew 80-20. On Hola, she strictly adheres to this rule, with the lamenting yet understanding “Blue Eyes” and the sparse, hauntingly beautiful “Ex-Favorite One” holding down the emotional folk element, while the rest of the record dives head first into intricate indie pop/rock productions.

It’s the rest of the record, truly, that carries the bulk of the space where Ash Reiter sees her music living in the two years since Paper Diamonds. That debut was mostly dominated by Ash’s prevailing folk singer-singwriter persona, molded after the likes of Jolie Holland. But it was that album’s opening track, the danceable pop number “Francais,” that pointed the way toward Hola. The track’s aesthetics of sonic experimentation and Beatlesque melodies have been taken to new heights on Hola, with touches of Talking Heads’ playful polyrhythms (on the end of times album closer “2012”), Of Montreal’s and St. Vincent’s penchant for audio orgasm (on the very British Invasion “I’ve Got Something I Can Laugh About”), and background vocals straight out of Rubber Soul (on “Rossini”).

Beyond the sonic smorgasbord, the songs themselves chronicle a well rounded, well-lived life that continues to burst with possibilities. The majority of these songs, from the sensitive and poetic “Ex-Favorite One” to the picturesque outdoor festival celebration of “Treasure Island” and the forgiving message to a friend in “Blue Eyes,” were developed in the living rooms, basements, coffee shops and tiny rock clubs of the San Francisco Bay Area’s independent rock and folk music community, where Ash made countless friends and connections. Others, like the California history lesson of the noted Native American “Ishi” and the westward migration tale of “Little Sandy,” reflect Ash’s time teaching second graders in Oakland, while “I’ve Got Something I Can Laugh About” was famliy-inspired, written when her mother suggested turning an embarrassing moment her younger sister experienced into a song.

Between shaping hearts and minds, the ending and mending of love lives, shame and laughter, building worlds and dancing as the end of those worlds seems like it could be upon us, Ash Reiter and her tight-knit band – guitarist Drew Brown, bassist Scott Brown, and drummer/vocalist Will Halsey – pull it all together into a set of ten carefully crafted songs, all of which are hit worthy individually and paint a complete picture collectively.

Though it may be her second full length album, as her first to be distributed by a label (San Francisco-based 20 Sided Records), it is in reality her introduction to the world, a chance to say “hello,” or “hola” rather, to a wider audience than she reached before. And everyone who waves back will find that there are few others who are as equally pleasing both to hear and to know.