Album review by Eric Sandberg
For people who continually decry the evils of Twitter, I say "But for Twitter I would never have 'met' Henning Ohlenbusch." As I recall, the Northhampton, MA based guitarist with The Fawns followed me on Twitter after reading some of my pithy replies to Robyn Hitchcock tweets.
I checked him out, of course, because he seemed to be one of my few followers that isn't a Russian bot. Henning is fun on Twitter thanks to a whimsical sense of humor, wildlife-spotting reports and a series of Fan Challenges where he poses interesting questions about popular music and requests responses in the form of a retweet.
In the Fawns, Henning is a sideman, supporting his significant other Lesa Bezo, who fronts that band and writes all of the material; but Henning is a prolific songwriter and bandleader himself. Henning formed School For The Dead, which released two albums before changing their name to Gentle Hen. As Henning puts it "Hey, let's change our name after being a band for so long and releasing a few albums. It'll make it harder for people to find us."
The earlier albums by the band, under either name, evoke a jangly, indie, Eastern North Carolina feeling. Each album exhibits an advancement in songwriting, arranging and playing that leads us to the third Gentle Hen album which sees them ready to gain some real traction in this "tsunami" we currently call the music business...only if enough people get to hear it.
Be Nice To Everyone begins with the bold statement "We've Got The Goods" a driving power-popper, crisply played and confidently sung. The remaining ten tracks ably back up that assertion. "She's Got It Bad" is replete with a classy keyboard intro leading to some tasty 12-string jangle, establishing Gentle Hen as the anti-Weezer.
Henning's somewhat nasal voice adds authentic charm to the whimsical lyrics and are sung with such expert and earnest phrasing that his non-traditional voice is an asset rather than a hindrance to your listening pleasure.
The stomping albeit filler track "Knock Knock Knock" is followed by the grooving synth riff of "This Could Only Happen To You," which plows along with insistent vocals and an oriental set of guitar dyads that act as counterpoint to the keyboard riff.
But everything so far is just a feint to get you to track five -- "A Few More Lifetimes" -- the album's literal and figurative centerpiece. This beautiful, haunting ballad is perfectly arranged, with ethereal pedal steel work from guest musician Andrew Goulet, as well as swirling organ and a tasteful, echo-drenched guitar solo.
I find myself often hitting the forward button to skip the musically trite TMGB send-up "There's A World In The World" to get to the absolutely delicious slice of power pop titled "Lean And Catch Your Fall," a song as good as or better than anything by Paul Westerberg, Matthew Sweet, or Alex Chilton for that matter. If Henning Ohlenbusch can keep writing gorgeous songs like this, I say let's send the penchant for musical whimsy on holiday for a fortnight.
Once again my finger is poised over the skip button as "They Know, They Know" hums along. It's another nice little ditty that recalls the band's past work, but it stands in the way of me listening to "Ancient Bones," in which Gentle Hen merges John Lennon, Robyn Hitchcock and, dare I say, Porcupine Tree into one brilliant, anthemic pop song that once and for all proves that this band has the goods.
While "Ancient Bones" is a clear show closer, the final two tracks serve well as an encore. "You Can Take It Back" recalls the early Attractions with a fast punk beat driving some two-fingered Wurlitzer chords, just to shake you out of the blissful trance induced by its predecessor.
The album closes with the hopeful "What We Did And What We Didn't Do," a catchy, upbeat reflection on how to live your life (be nice to everyone) with a great middle-eight that lends some heft to the bouncy verses.
Be Nice To Everyone is thoroughly enjoyable throughout. The less substantial songs, really just additions to the style established on previous albums, are quite good and listenable, but are somewhat exposed by the tremendous leap forward in songs like "A Few More Lifetimes," "Lean And Catch Your Fall," and "Ancient Bones." Those songs hint at a songwriter who is ready to make a big impact -- if enough people get to hear this fine record.
Gentle Hen — Be Nice To Everyone
Rub Wrongways Records
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.