On its first full-length album, Threes, the band pairs its bold speakeasy blend with what seem to be a collection of thoughtful breakup songs. The new material owns a good deal of confidence and occasional sass without falling prey to knee-jerk pitfalls of name-calling and the like. The result isn't so much a "breakup album," then, as it is just a solid lineup of good original songs that happen to frequently deal with relationship aftermath. Fortunately, cliché is not a part of the repertoire.
The LP kicks off with "Drink Up," which does a fine job introducing a number of the album's themes while hinting at the band's musical chops to be explored throughout the album. As its title indicates, the opener has a bit of a drinking song edge, and this is echoed by an especially slurry trumpet. The piano line here also borders on a mellowed out honky tonk that, despite its studio finesse, recalls a barroom upright piano languishing in some overlooked corner. The upright bass plods along as the lead vocalist charges forward with a full-bodied delivery, conveying an independence best summed up by the song's final line, "I don't believe you, and no, I don't need to."
The next track, "Lucinda," spotlights a velvety bass line and plays to the lyrics, which say "It's quieter than usual." Here, the piano is traded for distant organ, and the trumpet is played straight with a nimbleness it goes on to invoke for much of the album. The soft dynamics here also momentarily bring out the peripheral guitar parts that Threes subtly mixes in on most of the cuts. A number of these guitar performances are credited to Grammy-nominated John Fullbright, who also had a hand in producing the album with his frequent collaborator, Wes Sharon. By keeping the guitars in a supportive role, the album leaves plenty of room for Harumph to relish in its bass lines, piano riffs, trumpet solos, and especially its female vibrato.
These two opening tracks essentially set the range for Threes, which continues to switch up its palette but, with exception to surprise acoustic guitar ballad "Devil's Road," sticks to the same general mid-tempo lounge aesthetic. It doesn't push much beyond the established tone, which wanders between peppy and somber while addressing an existing or former lover about various relationship disparities. That's not a fault by any means, as this consistency leads to a lot of cohesion that solidifies Harumph's sound.
Furthermore, there is a conceptual angle to the LP that, while presented front and center through the album art and title, takes a bit to sink in. Threes is named after a game of dice wherein 2 (or more) players consecutively roll five dice in an attempt to get the lowest score possible. It's kind of like Yahtzee, except the players are forced to accept one or two dice from each roll no matter what is rolled. This game is also of the gambling variety.
Now consider that multiple times on the album, the lyrics make reference to the "game" of relationships. "Drink Up" points out that "We don't follow the same rules"; "Tell Me" admits, "I played the game / I dropped my guard"; and "Last Call" proclaims that "It's a lousy game of cat and mouse." When one makes the connection to the game of Threes, it becomes easy to interpret the concept in a myriad of ways. Each "game" is suddenly a metaphorical roll of the dice, a gamble of love, and the "players" can neither keep an entire roll nor be rid of it. Since higher numbers result in higher scores, and the goal of the game is to keep a low score, one can further infer that the "winner" of a played out relationship is the one that takes the least damage. And so on.
From a recording standpoint, one can sense a progression from Harumph's 2015 self-titled debut EP. That release included five songs--"Speak Clear," "Lucinda," "Move," "Last Call," and "Asleep at 2"--that all appear in new versions on Threes. These new recordings have better performance takes, clearer mixing, and more fleshed out arrangements. In particular, the upright bass sounds incredibly rich on much of Threes, and when compared to the prior EP, it's amazing what a difference that makes.
Of the five older songs, "Move" is the one that has been reworked the most. It is also the single that the band chose to release in anticipation of Threes, and for good reason. The new version is snappy and smooth, and it also best shows off the band's internal growth.
While Harumph doesn't seem to have branched out as much in terms of style or material since the EP, it has clearly honed its craft. Threes is a genuine achievement, proving that the band has worn into its special blend of influences so well that it is becoming more than the sum of its parts. Arguably, that is one of the high watermarks that any band hopes to achieve when chasing the proverbial "sound," and it's a lot harder than it may seem.
There's no need to roll the dice on this one. For fans of the various styles the group invokes, Threes is a sure win.
Threes is available on Spotify, Bandcamp, iTunes, and other online music services as well as at Guestroom Records on CD and vinyl.