The Oh Hellos: Real-deal folk


It’s been three years since folk duo, The Oh Hellos, came out with their debut, full-length album, “Through the Deep, Dark Valley.” The record established the pair as real-deal folk. They cultivated a unique sound, featuring melodic and powerful harmonies, layered instrumentation and imaginative lyrics, often religiously inspired. Their latest release, “Dear Wormwood,” employs all of the tactics that brought them favored recognition in the past, but showcases the maturity in which their musicianship and song subject matter has grown in the past three years.

The Texas-based, sibling duo of Maggie and Tyler Heath found inspiration for their sophomore album from the author C.S. Lewis and his book, “The Screwtape Letters.” Lewis’ book, published in 1942, is written in an epistolary style. A senior tempter named Screwtape, presiding in the lower courts of hell, writes to his nephew, Wormwood, advising him on how to tempt and undermine the faith of a human, simply known as ‘the patient.’ The narrative has become a springboard for the concept album, “Dear Wormwood,” in which most songs contain a loosely connected narrative, with the duo writing back to those who’ve harmed and deceived them.

The album opens with a prelude that foreshadows the tone and style of the album. The listener is suddenly transported to the front porch of a farmhouse overlooking a grassy meadow; you hear chimes, gently rustled by the wind, and soothing voices echoing in the distance. The rhythm picks up and builds into a crescendo that rolls seamlessly into a softer, melodic vocal.

Many of the songs take place in this countryside scene, evident by the plucky, mandolin-laden melodies. This effect is particularly noticeable in the bluegrass-heavy, “Bitter Water.”  The track is very much in line with what the duo did on their first album and showcases their best attributes. The upbeat tempo is accompanied by the shining vocals of both Heath siblings. Lyrically poetic, it tells of the realization of when an individual isn’t good for you, but continuing to love them anyway. Most notable are the overwhelming harmonies that have become the pair’s signature sound. The harmonies aren’t as clean-cut and sharp like that of the former duo, The Civil Wars. These are more blue collar and have a rough-around-the-edges kind of roar to them.

While perhaps the siblings are at their best when they use their entire arsenal of artistic tricks, there are times when they show restraint and give the listener a break from the raucous instrumentation. They scale things back in “There Beneath,” a song about finding the beauty in everything. Maggie takes the lead on this song, and her breathtaking vocal work is accompanied solely by the subtle guitar of her brother. The song highlights the fragility and tone of her voice, which can sometimes be muddled in some of their other songs. It’s simple, beautiful and effortlessly executed.

In the songs “Pale White Horse” and “Where Is Your Rider,” the listener is transported from this scenic and joyful countryside to a much more solemn and ominous place, straight out of the Book of Revelation. These songs feel like there is more at stake, and perhaps, maybe, things won’t turn out as okay as we once thought.  The highlight of  these more eerie tracks would be the song titled, “Caesar.” The song is carried by the weight and depth of Tyler’s vocals. It’s full of the kind of tension that will knot your stomach and stiffen your muscles, starting with simple guitar plucks and building to something chill-inducingly wicked.

Although the entire album is worthy of a listen, the clear standout, however, is the song after which the album is titled. In “Dear Wormwood,” the duo flips the script on Lewis’ ‘Screwtape’ and rebukes the devil for his torment and manipulation. Tyler’s vocals on the song are haunting and serve as a total outpouring of emotion. The agony in his voice when he sings the line “becoming what I hate” will send a shiver down your spine and a pang in your chest. Near the end, there is a full vocalized repetition of the line “I know who you are now,” which transitions into an almost triumphant cry, as if to say, “Devil, I have defeated you.”

The Oh Hellos have always been technically good, but the concept of the album is most successful in its relatable message: at one point or another, we struggle with a person in our lives who is simply not good for us. We can sympathize with the message “I love you, but I shouldn’t” and “I know who you are now, and it’s not who I want to be.” It’s in this relatability that music transcends genre. The Oh Hello’s album “Dear Wormwood” isn’t just real-deal folk, it’s real-deal music.

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