Further West, the newly released third album from West Townshend's Hungrytown, evokes the ages-old call of the open road. This is obviously true in the album's title, and is made equally clear in the record's cover art: the band name and album title are superimposed on a highway sign. The image is blurry, with taillight tracers speeding under an overpass, as if the shot was taken from behind a dashboard. Travel — especially of the westward variety — has been a staple of the American Songbook, and the American Experience in general, for generations. But on Further West, the husband-and-wife duo of Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson put their own distinctive spin on timeworn Americana convention.
Perhaps the most vivid and telling example of this comes by way of one of the few non-original songs on the record, Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty." Placed smack in the middle of the album, the tune is a literal and figurative centerpiece. But it's not simply that Hall and Anderson cover the famous song. It's how. Hungrytown's version is an a cappella duet that imbues Guthrie's ode to migration and the nobility of laboring with solemn reverence. Guthrie wrote the song in 1941, but Hall and Anderson make it sound much older, timeless even, harking to the song's British Isles roots. (Guthrie based his melody on a traditional British folk song called "Pretty Polly.")
Synthesizing and updating folk tradition is a Hungrytown hallmark that dates back to their 2007 self-titled debut, continues through to their 2011 follow-up Any Forgotten Thing, and is even more finely honed on Further West. Sweet and melancholy, the opening title track plays like observations of a passing landscape as seen through a rain-flecked passenger window. Spurred on by plucky banjo and guest Lissa Schneckenburger's fiery fiddle, "Hard Way to Learn" is driving Americana by way of Celtic folk. The brooding "Don't You Let Me Down" is sort of the inverse: Celtic folk shaded with Appalachian touches.
Hall's thoughtful lyricism and gentle melodic phrasing characterize Hungrytown's material. But multi-instrumentalist Anderson is the key to the duo's unique synchronicity. For example, he turns the fairly straightforward "Highway Song" into something more profound, decorating Hall's Nico-esque melody with dreamy accents of chiming guitar and organ. Recurring moments such as this make Further West Hungrytown's most affecting album to date.