Pretty Little Empire trades in sweet acoustic melancholy, a kind of slow-drip dream-folk that skirts the edges of twang and pop. Singer and guitarist Justin Johnson leads the quartet with a tremulous voice that has both a lonesome quaver and an inviting timbre. His singing style is eerily reminiscent of the Rosebuds' Ivan Howard, and both singers use the magnetic force of their voices to draw the listener into sometimes righteous, sometimes heavy-hearted songs. Theodore's Andy Lasher contributes lyrical, intersecting trumpet lines to standout "Good Morning Early Riser" and uses his bowed saw to add Theremin-like ambience elsewhere on the disc. And like Theodore, Pretty Little Empire loves the sound of dusty, creaking spaces, but chooses to leave them barren and let the echoes resolve unadorned. Hannah Maxwell adds a little taste of honey with some ghostly backing vocals and tasteful glockenspiel, but Sweet Sweet Hands is mostly a spare affair — and beautifully so.
The record's open, uncluttered sound is mostly a winning formula, although the sometimes-Spartan arrangements can make the songs tough to distinguish. Which isn't to say that Pretty Little Empire can't rock out: "Never Said Much" is the most upbeat song on the disc by some distance, with shouted background volleys, frenetic strums and ahead-of-the-beat drumming recalling some of the pop naiveté of K Records' early catalog. But if the musical arrangements are suitably rough and unadorned, Johnson's lyrics show more care. "A Long Time for Laughter" uses the familiar trappings of indie-folk (shuffling guitar, boy-girl harmonies, restless lyrics), but Johnson's voice and his bandmates' nuanced playing sells it. And "Baby Boy Killer," while not as damning as Sufjan Stevens' "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." or engrossing as Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska," is a worthy entry into the subgenre of serial-killer character studies. Time will tell if Pretty Little Empire stays with the hushed folk of Hands in the future; Johnson's talents are strong enough to make his songs work in a variety of settings. But for now, there's no reason to change a good thing.
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