HTRK – ‘Rhinestones’ review: album inspired by country and folk offers delicacy and disclosure

Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang’s gradual, yearslong efforts to distil their sound to its essentials culminate on their fifth album

Jonnine Standish’s murmured, low-key mantras have always been a signature of HTRK, but the Melbourne duo’s fifth album lays them newly bare. Inspired by the skeletal framework of country and folk music, Standish and musical partner Nigel Yang embrace more acoustic sounds with startling openness.

While that’s a world away from the deeply layered electronics, growling sub-bass and dirge-like electric guitar of early HTRK albums, the pair have been gradually distilling their sound to its essential components for years. 2009’s ‘Venus in Leo’ notably peeled back many of their usual disorienting effects, but ‘Rhinestones’ still feels like a revelatory act of disclosure.

Now that we can hear Standish’s lyrics more clearly than ever, their transfixing power is especially pronounced. Delivered with her unhurried phrasing, both repeated phrases and more fleeting asides make for emotional ambushes in miniature. “You’re a premonition, just in time,” she sings on ‘Sunlight Feels Like Bee Stings’, amid wispy lyrics about dream diaries and interrupted sleep.

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‘Valentina’ similarly evokes the spectral after-hours with recurring mentions of “the uncanny coincidence of the night”. Another lyric in that song – “I can hardly hear it, like a hush-hush secret” – could double as a description of HTRK’s subtle approach, which only make certain details stand out more. Take the brief knocking on the body of an acoustic guitar near the song’s start, followed by the sound of fingers brushing along the strings. Compared to the noisy flourishes competing for attention on HTRK’s 2009 debut ‘Marry Me Tonight’, ‘Valentina’ is practically a folk tune sung gently over a campfire.

Recorded in Standish and Yang’s studio in the Dandenong Ranges, the album includes a pair of tracks that came out as a 2020 single. Against spidery threads of guitar and a paper-thin programmed beat, ‘Real Headfuck’ cautions its subject against toying with other people’s emotions. Its lyric “Don’t mess around with young girls’ hearts” echoes a similar line from Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’, while the withering putdown “So here’s a real heads up/You’re a real headfuck” recalls one of Standish’s most enduring refrains from HTRK’s first album, via the song ‘Fascinator’: “We could make it if I met you in a different headspace.”

That song’s twin, ‘Reverse Déjà Vu’, examines comparable dislocation over an uncertain pulse. Describing mental interiority in her whisper-like delivery, Standish draws us closer and closer, until we feel almost like proper confidants. Yang has said that friendship and trust are key themes in the album (as explored in the lyrics of ‘Fast Friend’ and ‘Gilbert and George’), and anyone who has spent long hours with past HTRK records will feel like they’re revisiting old friends this time around.

If newcomers need time to adjust to the record’s fragile beauty, it’s worth it for quiet moments like the casual trailing-off of opener ‘Kiss Kiss and Rhinestones’ and the rippling delay effect applied to the guitar on ‘Straight to Hell’. Unfolding across nine gossamer vignettes, ‘Rhinestones’ begs repeated – and ever closer – listening to relish the delicate brushstrokes now on full display.

Details

HTRK new album 2021 Rhinestones
  • Release date: September 17
  • Record label: Heavy Machinery
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