A Spot on the Hill

A Spot on the Hill, A Need That Runs Too Deep (self-released)

Find it: aspotonthehill.bandcamp.com

The nature of instrumental music is that what it lacks defines what it is. Absent any language that delineates explicit meaning, the listener is left to intuit message and mood. But that’s a tricky proposition: Meter, modality, melodic movement — these aren’t guideposts or even breadcrumbs but subtle, abstruse hints. Even song titles offer little more than arcane, Sphynxian riddles. For the most part, whatever the listener’s bringing to it, well, that’s what the listener’s taking away from it, too.

This is not to suggest that the music Dan Cook makes as A Spot on the Hill starts at any sort of deficit. On the contrary, The Tenth Wave, the project’s 2018 debut, establishes Cook as a cunning composer, effective at using subtle melodic motifs and delicate layers to build momentum and motion, and to build quiet and thoughtful spaces for itself and its listeners. Minimal piano themes built into big emotional auras through repetition, not accompaniment; though they featured some violin, synthesizer and acoustic guitar, the songs were entirely focused on Cook’s guileless piano playing. It wasn’t so much a departure from his history as a punk rocker as it was a means of stripping off yet another layer. (Full disclosure: Cook used to edit Free Times.)

A Need That Runs Too Deep is bolder and sharper than its predecessor. It’s still built largely on a full complement of contemplative classical motifs and sustained tones, but it’s less insular. That it’s crisper, too, is perhaps a testament to Cook’s growing skill as an engineer (he records his music himself), and almost definitely a result of Taylor Deupree’s mastering. 

The new album has less in common with contemporary classical music than it does slowcore, and in that regard, perhaps, Cook’s drawing from a bigger reserve. More songs suggest Low or The Dirty Three (or even The Verna Cannon, the Molly Ledford-led slowcore band Cook played in) than Gorecki or Arvo Pärt. Melodies linger and rhythms lurch, and a forlorn feeling hangs over most of the proceedings. 

Again, such an observation is predicated largely on context clues. The title of opener “Last night, I flew over green fields” implies a placid flight, perhaps in a dream, but the song’s minor key and eerie violin melody suggest that dream might not be a pleasant one. The bright, ping-ponging piano quarter notes that form the crux of “A chance to start again” impart hope, but the dour violin melody and background crashes of overdriven electric guitar suggest that the hope comes only after great hardship. “Blue-sky pine,” “Comet 67P” and “Go look at the moon” take inspiration from the heavens, but their concerns are earthbound.

A Need that Runs Too Deep is a fuller, more confident musical statement than its predecessor, and the profundity Cook distills into these songs make them a perfect soundtrack for solitary late-night listening.

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