Music review

Anything But Cheap: Hey Monea! Take Folk Rock Back to Its Roots

The early 2010’s brought us a folk explosion in popular music. Fuzzy guitar tones and thunderous drum solos were no longer the name of the game; today, it’s all about acoustic guitars, banjos and percussion without the fifty-piece drum kits. Say what you will about the quality of bands like The Lumineers, but with their arrivals, the arenas were no longer reserved for anthemic guitar solos and mosh pits. Interestingly enough, Canton, Ohio’s Hey Monea! pre-dated this folk boom; long before folk made its mainstream mark, Hey Monea! were playing at festivals with artists like Soundgarden and John Fogerty. The Ohio natives even got to open for Bruce Springsteen himself in 2012. Despite now being in a genre crammed with newcomers aching to reach out to packed amphitheaters, Hey Monea! don’t aim to follow that trail. This is clean-cut alternative folk music through and through with no extraneous elements attached…and that’s a good thing.

The band’s newest album Cheap Souvenirs kicks things off rather humbly with the catchy, folksy love ballad “Adeline.” Everything you’d expect from the recent folk-splosion that engulfed America in the last few years is present in Cheap Souvenirs, but Hey Monea! don’t give into the arena rock pitfalls that Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers have fallen into. The Ohio quartet instead cut back on the bombast, focusing on simmering vocal harmonies and some catchy melodies. They trim the fat from big, big choruses and provide a surprisingly intimate and honest look into that minimalist version of alternative rock that has been torn away in recent acts. An emphasis on steady claps for percussion brings out the band’s vision on stripping down the spectacle and taking their genre back to the good ol’ times.

“I’ve been to church but I don’t pray/And I ain’t gonna start today,” sings frontman Dan Monea on “Pollyanna,” a piano-driven track that takes the best from rootsy, folk rock like Crash Kings and Alabama Shakes. From its campy, but gripping lyrics to the fantastic harmonies between the vocalists, “Pollyanna” shows the band’s biggest strengths, which translate well toward similar songs like “Stay” and “Ohio Lullaby.” The closer title track slows the pace to a steady one; it’s not a crawl, but it’s an intimate one (in a less serious light, it’d be the song your older brother would play to his significant other around Christmastime). These moments of reveling in the moment are where you see Hey Monea! in a fine light, one that doesn’t distract or obscure. It’s just there and it does a great job doing it.

Other songs on the album, however, don’t work out as well. “Never Gonna Take You Back” is a forgettable track that, despite its galloping pace and upbeat tone, doesn’t provide anything interesting for the band. It’s an odd detour, since the first two tracks are remarkably mellow ones; moving toward that crowd-jumping pace seems like an unneeded and distracting motion. The album also tends to drag a little near the end, with some of the last few songs lacking that aged amber that the beginning of the album possesses. “Cigarette” is a faster song reminiscent of modern indie bands like Vampire Weekend or a softer version of early emo rock like Jimmy Eat World. While it’s a nice surprise, it’s not Hey Monea! doing what they do best. The harmonies aren’t as noticeable, the melodies not as smooth; it’s a bit of a disappointment. These moments of diversion stick out like sore thumbs among the smooth balladry on Cheap Souvenirs, which otherwise demonstrates a homey vibe that Hey Monea! simply shine with.

Hey Monea! aren’t the hardest rocking band, nor are they the kind of band you’d expect selling out enormous arenas in this pop folk environment called 2013, but they do possess a brilliant kind of campy substance that makes Cheap Souvenirs a nice surprise. When the Ohio guys slow their pace down and let the fire burn a little bit, they show an excellent alternative to the stale folk scene. The piano chords sound off like no one’s business, Dan Monea’s singing is quite melodious (especially in the harmonies with his bandmates) and the songwriting has a rugged, but refined tone. This surprisingly interesting approach to folk rock makes the detours from the mellow tones all the more distracting. It’s great to hear variety on an album like this, but the band shows that they’re not at their best when their pacing accelerates. When they slow things down, Hey Monea! do a lot of things right. Cheap Souvenirs isn’t going to set the world on fire, but if you want an alternative album that cuts the theatrics and just performs really, really well, Hey Monea! will offer a serene and comforting look into the World of Folk That Used to Be.

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