Before recording Salt, LP No. 3 for the Philly-based Hoots & Hellmouth, the band had to weather the departure of Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray who’d started the band as a pared-down folk duo with Sean Hoots in 2005. A new lineup featuring mandolinist Rob Berliner, bassist Todd Erk and drummer Mike Reilly filed in around founding frontman Sean Hoots. The once spare duo has grown fully into the rock-band roster.
And on Salt, Hoots uses the new roster to move the band away from its rollicking roots-music origins, into a smoother adult-contemporary folk-rock. And that’s a natural for the perpetually up-and-coming Hoots & Hellmouth, who’ve watched from the sidelines as the bands they’re most often compared to—The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, etc—have led a surge of successful folk-rock acts.
You’ll notice how rarely anyone comments on how much Mumford & Sons sounds like Hoots & Hellmouth, despite Hoots’ three-to-one lead in discography building; there’s a reason for this. The so-called refinement demonstrated on Salt is mostly just the band steering steadily along the middle of the road.
Salt is not without its moments, though. “The Ache” suits its title, and showcases Sean Hoots as a remarkably expressive singer. As the band quiets in the chorus, he sings the title with conviction, but the vulnerable creak in his voice conveys more than the words can. It’s here, a bright moment in a sad song, that the band delivers on its promise.
Even on slightly lesser songs—like the weary shuffle “City Lights on A Country Ceiling” or “Lay Low,” which swings like Mungo Jerry on a brash guitar riff and bold stomping rhythm—Hoots & Hellmouth show they’ve still got the goods, packing songs with the energy and personality of a band on the rise.
But for each of these, there’s a “Why Would You Not Want To Go There?” dragging the band into a bland Matchbox 20 melody, or an “Apple Like A Wrecking Ball,” teasing a swollen chorus that never arrives.
What Salt shows, perhaps most of all, is that Hoots & Hellmouth’s after-Gray transition is still in progress. For now, though, the new sounds and approaches tried on for this album don’t always flatter.