MIKE IRELAND AND HOLLER
Learning how to live
Independent / Sub Pop
Release date : August 1998
Mike Ireland knows that "Learning How to Live", the debut
album by his band Holler, won't be an easy sell to fans
of what, for better or worse, is usually referred to as No
Depression country-- the kind of rock-based stuff perfected in
the early Nineties by Uncle Tupelo and carried on today by groups
such as Son Volt, Wilco, the Bottle Rockets, and Whiskeytown. But
where most of those bands lean more toward Neil Young and the
hard-edged sound of Fifties honky-tonk, Ireland and Holler romp,
stomp, croon, and, well, holler within the broad spectrum of the
music. Learning How to Live, the band's maiden release for Sub
Pop, incorporates not just the swagger and swing of Ernest Tubb
and Buck Owens, but the string-sweetened sound of countrypolitan.
It's the pop-country hybrid best defined by the early Seventies
productions of Billy Sherrill, who helped artists as great as
George Jones and Charlie Rich create some of their finest work.
"The strings are something I think people will have to be
prepared for. It seems that most have a strong reaction to them,"
says Ireland, the vocalist/bassist/songwriter who was formerly at
the helm of the Starkweathers, a revered Kansas City group that
issued a handful of fine records (including a single for Sub Pop)
before disbanding in 1995. "Either they really like strings or
they automatically decide that it's a problem. People are ready
to write off Billy Sherrill as a hack, and yeah, he was the first
guy to say, Let's add five tracks to this and put the
perfunctory string section on it, but when he was on-- good god.
There are a lot of recordings where the arrangements are as much
a part of the song as George Jones incredible singing."
"I grew up hating country music..."
Learning How to Live salutes Sherrill's innovative marriage of
pop, rock, and country, particularly on the four songs with
violins, viola, and cello. Rather than obscuring the urgency and
emotion in Ireland's songs, the strings (arranged by onetime
Association and Tom Waits collaborator Jerry Yester) actually
enhance their effect. They swell around the pained weeper "Worst
of All," and underpin the drama in Ireland's aching tenor on both
the title track and the set-opening "House of Secrets." On the
cynical "Headed for a Fall," guitarist Dan Mesh showcases his
arsenal of classic honky-tonk riffs, while Ireland, guitarist
Michael Lemon, and drummer Paul Lemon (both former Starkweathers)
pound out the roadhouse rhythms. With or without the strings,
Holler manage to find something new in the lexicon of
Despite his mastery of the form, Ireland hasn't always
been a country fan. "I grew up hating country music,"
he states. "It seemed like the most uncool music when I was a
kid. But I'm not sure you can get what Merle Haggard is singing
about when you're twelve years old. People tend to write off
country as being mindless and cliche-ridden and always about the
same things, but it seems to me that it tends to be much more
willing to be overtly emotional. At least at one time; I'm not so
sure about some of the hot new country groups. There's nothing
particularly emotional in what they're doing. I guess it's still
not cool to be that overt."
Ireland doesn't have that problem. Throughout Learning How to
Live, he pokes around the darkest corners of his heart and soul,
spinning tales and spilling his guts with resignation and sorrow.
Songs such as "Biggest Torch, Christmas Past", and "Learning
How to Live" ably chart the maturation of Ireland's writing since
the Starkweathers days. "I'm much less likely to write
rock-sounding songs these days," he says of his latest batch of
tunes. "When this band got together I became more comfortable
writing traditional-sounding things. I'm not trying to recreate
something that's old, though. I'm drawing on those sounds."
Whatever his inspiration, these songs establish Ireland as one of
the finest writers currently working in country music.
Mike Ireland - vocals, bass, glockenspiel
Michael Lemon - lead guitar, lap steel, mandolin
Dan Mesh - rhythm guitar, lead guitar on "Headed for a Fall",
Paul Lemon - drums