All too often, great bands end up like boxers. Their ego forbids timely retirement and an exit to a roaring crowd. Instead they continue almost pathologically, believing they will once again rise to taste the brilliance of a bygone era. Like Muhammad Ali returning to the ring, pity doled out alongside pummeling, or the Rolling Stones continuing to make time in the studio, few ever have the prescience or grace to quit at the height of their ability. This makes the Hunches' Exit Dreams all the more confounding.
It wasn't always this way. Since 2000, the Hunches filled a journeyman's role, usually solid and only occasionally compelling. They had a label (In the Red) distributing their records throughout the world. When they toured, people showed up. And while the Hunches' first two albums had a few memorable moments, the recordings never stood up to the frantic, borderline performance art of the live shows.
Then, about eight years in, things changed.
The band found a new cornerman, who flipped the old way on its ear. Local engineer Justin Higgins opened his studio, Old Standard Sound, to the Hunches, and it became an exploratory haven—especially for songwriter and guitarist Chris Gunn, who began the album knowing that it would be their last. "The band was [ostensibly] broken up," says Gunn. "This created more space than ever to create music for music's sake," a truth found in the album-opening lyrics of "Actors" ("How long have you been an actor, sir? I have been one now for 26 years. I quit today").
At Higgins' Southwest Portland studio, the sessions began under the auspices that things would be quick, down, and dirty, much like the wave of electrified, rusty dirt on their debut Yes. No. Shut It. and 2004's Hobo Sunrise. Both recordings are wild, but almost without nuance. When creating the first album, says singer Hart Gledhill, "we wanted it to sound crazy," and indeed the tidal waves of fuzz garnered press in magazines like Mojo, who were enthralled by the idea that vacuum cleaners could be used as instruments. "[But] it's not necessarily the best idea when you sit down and listen to it," Gledhill says of all the scuzz.
The sessions at Old Standard, however, quickly began to blossom, yielding a profound creative kinship between band and engineer. Higgins became artistically invested and threw out all notions of regular pay. Had he been compensated at his regular rate Higgins says, "It would've cost a fortune."
For the better part of a year, they hammered away at it, hunkered down in the basement—eight guitar tracks here, precise feedback there, a subtle piano, acoustic guitar, even whistling teakettles and popping balloons appearing in mix after mix after mix. As Higgins saw it, Gunn wanted to actualize "everything he heard in his head," something he'd never had the opportunity to do. But unlike the vacuum cleaners of days past, the layers provide a depth of color and shape previously unknown to the Hunches' garage world.
Gledhill got his turn as well, contributing more songwriting than ever. His more literary, wordy style—a sort of hobo poetry—offers counterpoint to Gunn's more classic pop-isms. What emerges on Exit Dreams (and their tour-only companion, Home Alone 5) is finally whole. It is both tarnished and beautiful; the band that so often seemed fearful to be clean got the guts to go pretty. Indeed, many of the best moments are the ballads, and the seamless transitions that weave them together. "Unraveling" almost explicitly encapsulates the sense of disillusionment and withdrawal permeating the album. "Not Invited" stands out as perhaps the most memorable track, with layers of stunning, understated guitar hooks and a breathy refrain which perhaps explains Gunn's solace amid life's (and the band's) tumult: "The chorus will catch me/hold me safely."
As soon as work on Exit Dreams finally wrapped, Gunn left Portland for San Francisco, seeking respite from "endless circles of aimlessness, massive amounts of alcohol, dead-end jobs, rain, anxiety, and a deep sense of failure." Really, it was the end of many things, not just the Hunches. And while the working relationship at Old Standard offered a perfect storm for Gunn's obsessive nature, he says he does not worry about Exit Dreams' potential to become his most realized artistic statement. He'll reinvest when he sees fit.
Gledhill, Gunn's musical partner since the two were 13, doesn't seem so optimistic or easy about the future. "The only band I'm ever going to be really serious about is with Chris. I've been playing music with him for 15 years and we were finally starting to figure it out." Gledhill continues, half joking: "I hate music. But I like playing it with Chris."