Howard Hello hasn’t been around much in the past decade. Started by Kenseth Thibideau back in 2001 after his band Tarantel went on hiatus and before the launch of Sleeping People, Howard Hello became a collaborative outlet between himself and Marty Anderson. It also became an outlet for ideas that fell outside of the aesthetic or spirit of Thibideau’s other bands, and as such Howard Hello is an idiosyncratic, unusual sort of project. Though it often featured rhythmically complex post-rock instrumental interplay, Howard Hello also delved into other experimental terrain, which made it both unpredictable and, at times, pretty weird.
Election Year, the first new album from Howard Hello in 10 years follows the 2016 lone track release “Last Chance.” The album feels like a complete reinvention and, as its title suggests, there’s an element of politics that runs through the album. Tracks such as “The Split” and “Vote” allude to certain uncomfortable realities of 2017, namely our culture of division and corporate control of our democracy, respectively. However, it’s less the message than the delivery system that’s most striking here. Election Year is an ambitious and gorgeous album. It’s also highly peculiar.
Driven by Thibideau and Anderson, Election Year features a number of notable guests including Marie Haddad, No Knife/Montalban Quintet’s Chris Prescott and prolific drummer/percussionist Nathan Hubbard. As such there’s a level of talent here that shows the kind of musical heights of which San Diego is capable. But Howard Hello doesn’t necessarily make it easy for the listener. As beautiful as many of these arrangements are, Anderson’s vocals are frequently clouded in vocoders or Auto-Tune, making the juxtaposition of gorgeous arrangements and robot vocals a jarring one. Yet it’s not entirely unprecedented; Lambchop, Sufjan Stevens and Flaming Lips have all done similar things in their own catalogs.
Election Year nonetheless features some spectacular songs, like the synth-driven art pop of “Sunny,” the almost Radiohead-like sprawl of “Greenhouse” and the space-age ballad “Witness.” For a project that’s been dormant for a long time, Howard Hello feels invigorated on this release, getting back to being weird and subverting expectations after years of not having any at all.