Over the course of five albums with LA-based psych five-piece Wand, frontman Cory Hanson has charted a trajectory from the Ty Segall-approved 2014 garage-rock debut, Ganglion Reef, to 2019’s artier and more thoughtful Laughing Matter. The sense of change and development has been palpable, but even so nothing quite prepares you for the sumptuous beauty of Pale Horse Rider, his second solo album.
Recorded with a three-piece in December 2019 at a home studio in Joshua Tree and then refined and enhanced by Hanson through January and February 2020, it’s an album that offers epic sound on an intimate scale, with country-influenced songs awash with steel guitar and spotted by delicate ambient textures that maintain a sense of sonic drama and defy genre. If Wand feel like a band on an endless, exciting and unpredictable journey, Pale Horse Rider offers the completeness, consistency and confidence that comes from arrival.
Hanson had originally tried to bend the songs for Pale Horse Rider into shape with Wand, but when that didn’t work decided to use them for a solo record. Wand had formed as a trio who mainly played songs written by Hanson, but by 2017’s Plum they had developed into a more collaborative vehicle. That gave Hanson space to branch into solo albums, the first of which appeared in 2016.
The freaky, string-laden folk of The Unborn Capitalist From Limbo was a clear departure from Wand and a fine record in its own right, but one that still paid service to psych stylings as if Hanson couldn’t quite abandon the Wand universe entirely. Pale Horse Rider sees him travel a lot further down this new road and with much more conviction. You can hear that self-assurance in the arrangements, the production and the lyrics but most clearly in the vocals, Hanson’s best singing to date. While on Unborn Capitalist he seemed to affect a voice, on Pale Horse Rider there’s a natural and unselfconscious vulnerability to tracks like “Angeles”, a hymn to his hometown of LA, and the sparkling “Bird Of Paradise”. Other songs – including the powerful trinity of “Pale Horse Rider”, “Another Story From The Center Of The Earth” and “Pigs” – require a more forceful but still moderated delivery that’s typical of the control Hanson demonstrates over all aspects of the record for its duration.
A sense of place has always been important to Hanson’s music. Pale Horse Rider was recorded in the desert, surrounded by cacti, and the songs have an epic and uncluttered quality, stretched out and flecked with tiny detail like the gorgeous pedal steel of “Another Story…” that comes in like a sharp intake of breath, or the clip-clop rhythm that opens “Paper Fog”. Even the urban-set songs have this panoramic quality. On “Angeles”, Hanson wanted to celebrate LA but he wrote from the perspective of a drone, hovering over the city, studying it from afar rather than amid the bustle of the streets. Several songs were written in the ultimate desert city, Las Vegas, including the most populated track, “Vegas Knights”, a gentle lilt with strings and sly references to cards, slots, blackjack and whiskey.
“Angeles” contains the single most memorable lyric: “Your mama, she was a psychoanalyst/Until she egged my car; and then she was my nemesis”. It’s something that could have come from the pen of David Berman, Hanson’s Drag City labelmate. Berman’s spirit hovers over Pale Horse Rider – the album is literally dedicated “to David, for the good haunting”. That’s a reference to the fact Berman sought out Hanson in summer 2019 to offer support and advice, telling him to write 20 lines every day. This process would hone his lyrical instincts and give him a bank of material to draw on when he was making a record. Hanson dutifully followed that advice for Pale Horse Rider.
Hanson was on holiday when he learnt of Berman’s death and spent a couple of weeks driving round Greece listening exclusively to Silver Jews. That inevitably feeds into the sound of the record. Like Silver Jews or Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent, Hanson borrows affectionately from country music without ever putting himself dangerously in debt to genre tropes. No songs here could be described outright as country, but the sounds, rhythms, shades and themes of country & western are ever present, shadows against which Hanson has etched a more personal and distinctive vision.
Those country flavours come through most clearly with the pedal and lap steel played expertly by Tyler Nuffer, but it’s present too in Heather Lockie’s string arrangements and the backing vocals, multi-tracked to create what Hanson describes as the “Nashville choir”. There’s a countrypolitan element to the fluidity of the playing, with Hanson, Nuffer and Evan Backer tracking the album live in their isolated home-studio – and that band element is crucial to Pale Horse Rider’s success, giving it a more expansive and fuller sound than Unborn Capitalist…. Hanson then added texture after the rest of his band had departed, taking time and working alone to hone, file, edit and improve the songs using pedals, effects, found sounds and even a dog’s pig-shaped squeeze toy.
He draws on country for his lyrical themes, focusing on amoral “losers and suckers” and “rambling gambling lowlifes” and then creating non-narratives featuring drifters, riders and runners who flit through “Paper Fog”, the title track, “Limited Hangout” and “Another Story…”. From these four songs emerge fragments and shards of images featuring horses, ghosts, dust and sunsets. Hanson refuses to corral these into anything resembling a coherent story, and the elusive qualities are further enhanced by Hanson’s use of effects pedals. In the single most Wand-like moment on the record, “Another Story…” soars into a distorted, crunchy Crazy Horse desert jam, while effects are prominent in the two non-vocal tracks, “Necklace” and “Surface To Air”, which act as extended intros, setting the scene for the songs that follow. Hanson names Brian Eno as one influence on the ambient texture of the album, and “Surface To Air” and “Necklace” both have an Eno-esque quality – these are moments of sound and atmosphere rather than conventional instrumentals.
Animals are another recurring motif. From his desert location, Hanson was inspired by the Native American folklore featuring humans turning into animals as well as the way the desert wasteland can teem with life despite its inhospitable appearance. As a result, there are horses, dogs, birds of prey and “Birds Of Paradise”, while the superb closer, “Pigs”, plays with the idea of pigs as policemen and children dressing as pigs for Halloween, but with the feeling there’s a lot more happening beneath the surface as the narrator sings, “I’m high on codeine/And digging up shadows in the backyard/Setting fire to their graves”. It’s not entirely clear what’s taking place, but Hanson is confident enough to know that it doesn’t really matter as long as the music sustains and the images are arresting.
It’s that confidence that makes Pale Horse Rider such an impressive record. While Wand can be defined by their playful experimentation, veering wildly and thrillingly between genres from track to track, Hanson has imbued this LP with a thematic and musical cohesiveness that makes it the finest record of his career to date. Given his nature, it’s unlikely that he will make a record quite like this again, but its timeless qualities make it one to savour.