Big Harp – White Hat Review

California Alt. Country duo offers up their debut LP on Saddle Creek Records, giving this super week of indie releases a much needed injection of subtlety. Endearing storytelling and simple, pretty melodies are the rule here. In time with Big Harp’s understated style, I have to say…it’s pretty good, I guess.

Big Harp – White Hat (2011) – 8.0 / 10.0

Release Date: Sept. 13, 2011
Running Time: 38:02
Producer: Pierre de Reeder
Label: Saddle Creek
Genre: Americana, Alt. Country, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
Drug of Choice: Opiates, Absinthe
Key Tracks:
“Goodbye Crazy City”
“White Hat”
“Out in the Field”

The California Alt. Country duo Big Harp have an impressive musical pedigree even before having made one record. The group is the musical product of married couple Stefanie Drootin-Senseney and Christopher Senseney. Originally from Omaha, Senseney cut his teeth with the indie group Art in Manila, while Drootin was playing bass with the Good Life, She and Him, and Bright Eyes. With White Hat, they put that experience to use and create a refreshingly simple sound. This record is rocking chair comfortable in parts, and hot rod teenage rambunctious in others, making it a perfect partner for the departing summer season.

Equal parts Tom Waits, Jonathan Richman, Jorma Kaukonen, and Chris Isaak, Senseney makes an intriguing storyteller. As a vocalist, he isn’t the strongest or most unique, but makes up for it in pure earnest delivery. That earnestness was only magnified by the straight forward production style on White Hat, and one that I was thankful for. Senseney’s voice is one of a few ‘almost’ drawbacks for Big Harp. The lyrics are ‘almost’ too sentimental. The arrangements are ‘almost’ too slight. The songs are ‘almost’ too pedestrian in their application of the Blues. But the ‘almosts’ are actually strengths for this band that enjoys taking a cliche straight on the nose and moving forward. Senseney seems to acknowledge it from the first note of the record as he croons on “Nadine”; “She went off to California, like in every other song.”

“Nadine” is a good example of the laid back groove that the couple set throughout White Hat, this is the Tom Waits-variety of late-night coffeehouse blues with an American Roots twist. That same tom cat prowl can be heard on other winners like “Steady Hand Behind the Wheel” and “All Bets Are Off”. White Hat certainly isn’t short on well-executed balladry either. That sentimentality I mentioned earlier is perfectly dosed on “Let Me Lend My Shoulder”. “Goodbye Crazy City” is an expertly written remorseful track about the end of youth. For fans of Jorma Kaukonen, “Some Old World I Used to Know” is about as close to “I Am the Light of this World” as one can get before actually joining Hot Tuna. But the album’s finest track comes from a song that I have yet to define. “Out in the Field” clicks along like a newer uptempo Tom Waits record, but emotes more than Waits ever has. Here, the slight performance and Senseney’s humble delivery only bring strength to his guttural yelps and eventual explosion at song’s end, almost channeling PJ Harvey in a disturbing way.

Like Dylan’s John Wesley Harding before it, White Hat is a record that is more defined by the things that it isn’t trying to be than those it is. Uncluttered by studio effects, noise, or unnecessary virtuoso performances, Big Harp rely solely on the strength of their songs. It is a strategy I wish more artists would apply. This album doesn’t feel like it is trying to be something huge and its short 38 minute run time would suggest an easy listen. The record might indeed feel easy, but it packs a punch that most artists wish they could carry. Senseney and Drootin are excellent songwriters with a unique vision and I look forward to seeing what they have in store next. Until then, White Hat will have to endure repeated listening. I think I can handle that.

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About Chris Bell

Chris Bell was born in the suburbs of Kansas City, MO in 1981. His path toward a life enjoying music began at ten, when he first heard Queen. Chris attended Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, where he studied English and Communication Arts. While there, Chris spent three years working as an on-air disc jockey for 88.7 KTRM Radio. Chris was the host/creator of the weekly ‘Tangled Up In Bob’ show and a frequent guest on the station’s weekend talk format, serving as a guest commentator on music and politics. It was during this time that Chris was first published by the National Communication Association. His work, ‘Dylan and the New Left: How Political Song Changed American Political Rhetoric’ was presented at the 2002 NCA National Convention in New Orleans. Chris was the only undergraduate to present research on his panel, ‘Rhetorical Strategies in Music’. After college, Chris moved back to Kansas City and started his own talent management company, Poker Face Productions. He continued to manage that company until moving to Brooklyn, NY to pursue a business opportunity in 2008. While there, Chris started as a weekly column writer and album reviewer for Now back in the Midwest, Chris is hoping to bring what he learned about music media in New York to his hometown and support an already vibrant arts culture in Kansas City. His areas of concentration include American Roots, Glam Rock, Punk, Psychedelia, Chamber Pop, American Underground, and Garage Rock.