He Mistook Her For A Swan is a Canadian acoustic guitars/vocal duo comprising Colleen Hodgson and Steve Koch, seasoned musicians both. The duo’s wordy, murder-ballad derived name, we’re assured, is usually abridged to HMHFAS, an unpronounceable acronym that could only ever work written down. But, on to HMHFAS’s debut, self-titled album currently available as digital stream/download.
The album has 7 tracks (not 10, as Bandcamp’s siren-like preview tried to tempt unwary reviewers with) and is a half-hour heart-on-sleeve celebration of the duo’s musical inspirations. Influences that are plainly evident on this album entirely composed of traditional songs and cover versions. Well, perhaps in uncertain times, a little familiarity can be reassuring?
Opening with ‘Katie Cruel’, the Bert Jansch lyric is set to a softly billowing guitar. Jackson C Frank’s melancholy ‘Milk And Honey’ follows, complete with plaintive guitar ripples before the topsy-turvy world of riddles that is ‘Nottamun Town’, here given a midwestern blues, railroad-car ambience highly redolent of Jansch.
Echoes of previous incarnations also shade through ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, Ann Briggs’s ‘Go Your Way’ and Sandy Denny’s much-loved ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, the brittle, bright guitar of this last song softly soothed by its gentler partner.
And then there’s ‘Paranoid’, Black Sabbath’s maelstrom of speed-fuelled anxiety. HMHFAS mystifyingly declare it “a sad and beautiful folk song” – it isn’t – before dragging it out in a slow and dreary two-person round, its feebly-beating heart pierced only by Koch’s tricky (electric) guitar solo. Koch has a punk hinterland, and I’m afraid that this version only left me wanting a lie down in a darkened room with The Dickies version on loud repeat.
There’s no criticism of the rock solid performances, though, with Hodgson gearing smoothly through her register (particularly effective in the lower range); the interplay of guitars is well-handled and the clean, crisp production doesn’t distract from the storytelling.
It’s a pleasing enough listen (‘Paranoid’ excepted), but nothing, for me, to make it ground-breaking or essential. In the end, it’s the over-familiarity of the song choices, unleavened with any new or less well-thumbed material, that is this album’s chief weakness.
Artist website: www.hmhfas.com
We had to do it: that lovely old folk song, ‘Paranoid’: