Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequin Ghosts (formerly Ryan Hamilton and the Traitors), is the new project from former Smile Smile and People on Vacation front-man Ryan Hamilton. Their sophomore album Nowhere to Go but Everywhere, prioritises tried and true melodies, punchy, clean production, and layered instrumentation over any form of experimentation or individuality. And I do mean tried and true, Ryan and company are looking back to the early 2000s at the latest and often as far back as the 1960s.
Although Ryan Hamilton and the band purport to wear their influences on their sleeves, the sound of their music belies some of their lyrical nods as a rather hollow and disingenuous. “Oh No” is a boisterous cornball paean to classic rock and roll that name-checks a huge assortment of rock titans from The Clash to Bruce Springsteen. Some of the artists who receive shout outs feel like legitimate touchstones for Hamilton and company, The Beach Boys being the most apt comparison. However, this track is a lot more Train than The Rolling Stones for sure, and I find it hard to imagine how one could find themselves inspired by Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs or Prince’s Purple Rain and then go and write a song that sounds this clean and inoffensive.
As a result of this, Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequins hardly feel like the most essential act in music today, and Nowhere to Go but Everywhere doesn’t exactly set the world ablaze. Exploiting familiar sounds needn’t be a fatal flaw though, so long as the song-writing and dynamics are there, but Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequins scarcely improve on their often simplistic forebears. The opening track “Only a Dream” is a brisk, crisp distillation of bittersweet, feelgood heartland pop-rock and although it initially struck me as a mild opener, in hindsight it seems like one of the album’s stronger compositions and certainly vocal performances.
The intro and bridge to the track “Jesus & John Lennon” is a reverb-swamped na–na–na Viking chant that sounds like a muddied rip from the classic Of Monsters and Men playbook, which through Hamilton’s nasal vocals takes on an almost Billie Joe Armstrong-quality. The song itself is a bizarre mash-up of more rock classic worship and religious imagery, which is a strange bag of trick with which to approach the lyrical theme of transience and looking before one leaps that is central to the track. That is to say nothing of the Linda Lovelace reference which I honestly couldn’t make head nor tail of. If it is a reference to the extremely dark backstory of spousal abuse she suffered then it’s a perplexingly dark allusion to make on such a track.
Despite some shortcomings in the songwriting up to this point, it’s here where the album fully takes a turn for the worse. The Rolling Stones influence is heard right away on the peppy “Out of My League”, where it is mixed it with more Beach Boys girl-chasin’ fun. It’s a kind of gross track about showing off one’s partner like a new sports car he’s remortgaged his house to buy. The picture painted on the next track “Let’s Go Slow”, is a lot more flattering, offsetting the shallowness of the previous track with a nice little getting to know you anthem that drips with schoolboy innocence and nice guy energy. Despite its title, it doesn’t feel like the longest song on the album, with some nice glittering piano chords and it’s a precious island of promise compared to what’s to come.
The toms being mixed so deafeningly loud on the back end of “Can I Get an Amen” is a creative decision that I could honestly pass on, and the broad simplicity of the lyrics on this track just leave it feeling like a vague feelgood sentiment. It’s unclear to what we are supposed to be offering our assent, with the mixing of metaphors leaving the track a bit of a mess. As previously intimated, there’s a lot of punch to the mix, but it’s so squeaky clean that it hardly rocks. It’s one of many moments on the record that feels like it was composed to absolutely kill at an outdoor live show somewhere in the Midwest.
The track “Don’t Fall Apart” is another such moment, complete with the hand-clapping bridge and an eerily familiar backing melody. However, this is easily the most sluggish track on the album, feeling equally underwritten to many other moments and the instrumental lacks momentum.
I never thought I’d ever hear a song about fetishizing the supposed violence of Geordie women, but thanks to the track “Newcastle Charm” I now have to live with having done so. Although, I think the worst part of this song is still the tinny, synthetic sounding bridge, and regardless I’ll still take it over the song “Southern Accents”, where the band takes an equally syrupy and simplistic approach to localised portions of the U.S. Despite Hamilton’s Texan origins himself, his take on states like Georgia are insultingly shallow and vapid.
Thankfully we get a bit of a reprieve after this with what feels like the most sincere moment on the record and the sadly short track “We Gave It Hell”, where Hamilton sings a fond farewell to his marriage and looks forward to a hopefully bright future, both as a single man and with this new phase of his career. The songwriting on this track and indeed the closer “Pick Yourself Up”, isn’t exactly stellar and still lacks for the kind of gritty and evocative detail that is the heart and soul of country-rock songwriting, but they play nicely into the narrative of the album, pushing ahead to a new horizon with an optimistic outlook.
Despite the solid performances and road-tested formulae found within, the production on Nowhere to Go but Everywhere sounds too clean and the songwriting too basic for the tunes to come through with any sense of authenticity or credibility. With all the name–checks given to genre forerunners, Ryan Hamilton and his band sound more like devoted rock and roll fanboys than either expressive creative artists or essential players in the development of the genre themselves.
Nowhere to go But Everywhere is out on September 18th on Wicked Cool Records.