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Hank Dogs

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Determinedly peculiar Brit folksters Hank Dogs were discovered by Joe Boyd, the man behind the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, and Fairport Convention. But unless you really know the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, and Fairport Convention, you might read “folk” as strum-and-twang simplicity. Indeed, like many an Anglo (or -phile) folkie, the Hank Dogs deal with sexual perversion, revenge, and unhappy love—in short, the meat of everyday life. But, as with Boyd’s other minstrels, there’s nothing conventional about this trio. Your weirdometer will tinkle before you even hear them, when you learn that Piano is Andy’s ex-wife, Lily is Andy’s daughter from a previous relationship, and none of them believe in surnames. Hank Dogs’ approach is less Child ballad and more Cocteau Twins: Half Smile, their second album, cares more about sound than song, making full and fine use of the sometimes sinister, sometimes deadpan vocals of lyricist/lead singer Piano and percussionist Lily. It seems Mugglish to complain that a lovely mess like Half Smile doesn’t have enough hooks, but the group’s previous offering, the sublimely creepy Bareback, delivered more consistently strong melodies and lyrics while maintaining its otherworldly tone. Half Smile is more impressionistic, less lyrically acute, and, to my admittedly song-biased ears, less satisfying. The usual Hank Dogs MO, in which Piano and Lily weave eerie harmonies in and around circular acoustic-guitar arpeggios, sometimes gets monotonous here; the soundscape is so even that it gets difficult to tell, say, “Torture” from “Bowl of Rice” or “Whole Way.” Still, the title track reaches the heights of the best of Bareback: Lily lays a high drone over Piano’s low murmur as their mouths work the bitter words “Don’t think I want to get even/I’ll let the universe decide.” Come to think of it, at moments like this, Hank Dogs wield such a witchy vibe that maybe I should rewrite my review to make it more positive—or at least conjure up a good spell of protection before I go to sleep tonight. —Pamela Murray Winters