Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

Weekly (p)reviews: Still trying to make it happen

King Hannah comes to Doug Fir; Sigur Rós subdues the Theater of the Clouds audience.

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King Hannah.
King Hannah.

Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle, the two singer-songwriters responsible for the hazy, blues-y dreampop project King Hannah, say everything a band on come up should say. Speaking over Zoom from their hometown of Liverpool, the pair talk about their determination, and how, even if they never received the buzz and support that is allowing them to tour the U.S. for the first time, they would, as Whittle says, “still be writing songs and still trying to make it happen.” 

But there’s something about the way that he and Merrick say these things that tells the more complete story about this group. In their answers to my questions lay a tone of shrugging acceptance, a bit of bewilderment, and a healthy amount of good humor. Particularly so about their rapid rise from a humble recording project that released a single tune (the loping, haunting “Crème Brûlée”) online in 2019 to a group that just wrapped up a successful EU tour days before we spoke. 

“In some ways it feels very, very quick,” says Merrick, “but in other ways, it feels like 10-15 years, if not longer. The jump from ‘Crème Brûlée’ to EP then album, it’s very overwhelming, isn’t it? It took a long time to sink in. Now the touring has made us sort of realize, ‘Wow, this is actually happening.’” 

From the outside, the pace of it all does seem sudden. After “Crème Brûlée” dropped, the duo were soon contacted by the German label City Slang. They turned around an EP, 2020’s Tell Me Your Mind And I’ll Tell You Mine, and then almost immediately started work on their debut full-length I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, out this past February. 

What that timeline skims over is the many years of Merrick and Whittle working on their respective projects before meeting up at their day job working at a pub. And the fact that, when they signed with City Slang, they had to quickly write a bunch of material to fill out their first EP. 

What is evident when listening to King Hannah’s work is the rapid evolution of the duo’s songwriting. “Crème Brûlée” introduced an already fully-formed vision, but it has only grown sharper as they’ve continued on. 

The newer material on Tell Me, like the oil slick shimmer of “Meal Deal” and the psychedelic drive of “Bill Tench” were an immediate sonic upgrade. I’m Not Sorry burns even stronger and steadier with production that recalls the controlled racket of Mitchell Froom’s work with Los Lobos and American Music Club and lyrics that pull from childhood memories, both good and bad, and occasionally portends a coming storm. 

“I think the artists and the bands we were listening to when we wrote the EP were so different to the artists and bands we listened to when we made the album,” Merrick says, citing Smog, PJ Harvey, Wilco, and Mazzy Star as being in regular rotation during the Sorry sessions. “So there was definitely growth in terms of songwriting and in terms of how the music sounds in that short amount of time.” 

Hearing how much King Hannah has grown in such a short period of time is only fueling the excitement surrounding the future of this project. If it’s already this good, it can only get better, right? Getting an answer to that question is going to take some time as, once the pair wraps up their U.S. tour, they head straight to Spain for Primavera Festival and remain on the road through the summer. Exhausting as it will likely be, it’s the kind of “nice busy” (as Whittle puts it) schedule ideal for a young, hungry group like this. 

“I think we’re both very determined, ambitious people, aren’t we?” Whittle says. “It’s never been an option for us to do something else. Every since I started learning to play guitar, I’ve played in stupid little bands and always thought, ‘Well, this is what I’m going to do.’” 

King Hannah plays Doug Fir Lounge (830 E Burnside St, Portland), Tuesday May 24 at 9 pm. Tickets: $15. 21+

Sigur Rós, Theater of the Clouds, May 11, 2022

The Moda Center was mausoleum quiet earlier this month — the audience subdued into a hush by the washes of drone music seeping out of the PA and the imminent arrival of Icelandic post-rock ensemble Sigur Rós at the beginning of their first tour in five years. Considering the fragility of the group’s music–present even amid the sheets of volume that the quartet can generate–and the frail body of bandleader Jónsi, there was, perhaps, some concern that any sudden movements would send them scurrying back to Reykjavík. 

The response to the band’s career-spanning set was similarly measured for a stadium show of its kind. Few shouts of recognition for the first pinging notes of “Svefn-g-englar” or the crackling opening moments of “Glósóli,” a fan-favorite from the group’s 2005 album Takk… Just a lot of awestruck looks and eyes closed moments of bliss from where I was sitting. 

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Sigur Rós, Theater of the Clouds, May 11, 2022. Photo by Robert Ham.
Sigur Rós, Theater of the Clouds, May 11, 2022. Photo by Robert Ham.

The restrained reactions felt entirely appropriate to the way the evening was constructed. Sigur Rós built their setlist with meticulous care, with a first set emphasizing material that maintained a singular pace and mood. The second half of the show was volcanic in comparison. Songs built and exploded, boiling over the edge and sizzling loudly. 

All of it built toward “Popplagið,” the track that closes out their album ( ), which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and ended the mid-week performance. The final minutes of that song are crashing and violent, and only felt more savage when coursing through a massive speaker array. Jónsi, keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson and bassist Georg Holm held out the last chaotic moments as long as they could muster — a rage of feedback and overdriven chords. When it finally came to an abrupt halt, then, and only then, did the audience jubilantly lose its collective cool. 

Sigur Rós, Theater of the Clouds, May 11, 2022. Photo by Robert Ham.
Sigur Rós, Theater of the Clouds, May 11, 2022. Photo by Robert Ham.

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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