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Amidst the splendor and darkness of the House of Blues in Dallas, before the whispering, elegant twists of painted blue flower-covered vines adorning the walls, in the middle of a concert and the middle of a song, Brian Harding looked at his audience, walked away from his microphone, and sat down on the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe amplifier to sip a dripping can of Miller Lite.

The Sunday evening crowd waited in uneasy expectation as silence spread while Harding swallowed and casually contemplated his fingernails. Seconds earlier, he had been lovingly connected to his microphone, singing blindly to the stars above with a wail and twang of heartsickness, "Feels like it's been so long, been so long, since you left me all alone, oh no. And I had some trouble shakin' it…" And it was at this point that the song's tempo began to dwindle, tripping and crashing, away from the fast-paced catchiness to a slow, lethargic plod, finally quieting with a final unfinished chord change, leaving the audience poised and tense with expectation.

After nursing the beer, Harding sighed, got up, and meandered slowly back to the front of the stage, where a decisive metallic clang on his guitar and the lamenting voice of his lyrical melodies brought the rest of the Brooklyn-based quartet Hymns back into the song. "But now it's easy to forget," he intoned melancholically.

Harding is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Hymns, a clattering Brooklyn-based contraption of a band comprised also of Jason Roberts on lead guitar, Matt Shaw on bass, and Tony Kent on drums - three men who, like Harding, toured with fellow New York City rockers Locksley during October and November on MTV's first Choose or Lose tour. "As far as the relationships (within the band) go, we're like two sets of best friends," said 21-year-old bassist Shaw, describing the closeness of Hymns' members.

Roberts and Harding, best friends since the fifth grade, originally formed the band during their time at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, their home state, and later added lifelong friends Kent and Shaw from Celeste, Texas. While touring with Ben Kweller as his lead guitarist after graduating from college, Roberts met John Kent, Kweller's drummer and owner of Blackland Records, a small indie record label and recording studio run out of Celeste. Roberts played John the Hymns songs he and Harding had recorded by themselves, and John quickly became a Hymns enthusiast - when the tour ended, he asked Roberts if he wanted to join the label, and Roberts earnestly agreed.

So in 2005 Harding and Roberts left the cacophony and modernity of New York City to come to the dusty streets and pale-faced, worn down buildings of Celeste, population 817, and record their first album in the contemplative, slow motion silence of East Texas. It was there that they met Tony Kent, John's younger brother and also a drummer, then a junior studying journalism at Baylor University. And Kent brought his long time best friend and bassist Matt Shaw, also a student at Baylor, to round out the quartet. When the foursome was complete, they decided to base themselves out of Brooklyn, though none of them were originally from New York - the result is the matchless sound that is Hymns, a concoction of gentle, cricket-chirping, baking Texas melodies and rough, metallic, driving New York rhythms. It's a combination of auditory inspirations so different one might think the product is bound to fail, but the cohesion of the musicians on stage - now the cohesion of four best friends playing together - provides a welcome surprise for music lovers.

Talking to Hymns, it's easy to see how they manage to pull something like this off - their musical souls are the same, and though the two halves of the ensemble may have been brought up in different parts of the country, their ears were raised on the same sonic nourishment. "I liked it from the time I can remember anything," said Shaw, referring to the memories he has of growing up listening to old vinyl records of The Beatles and Neil Young in his older brother's room.

"Music was always playing in (my) house (when I was growing up)," agreed Harding, the son of a professional trumpet player. "I grew up hearing music…all the time."

Kent, a steadfast student of his older brother John, grew up surrounded by musical talent as well, while Roberts, after seeing a program on TV, began playing guitar at age seven. "I taught him his first song at my bar mitzvah," said Roberts, grinning and pointing to Harding. "'About a Girl' by Nirvana."

But the band has come a long way from Roberts' bar mitzvah, and during the release of their debut album Brother/Sister in 2006 and sophomore album Travel in Herds in 2008, which garnered attention from major publications like Spin Magazine and The New Yorker, the band played with such prominent musicians as Beck, Ben Kweller, Hot Hot Heat, The Redwalls, and The Lemonheads, to name a few. On Nov. 3, they will finish their national MTV Choose or Lose Tour with Locksley, another Brooklyn band they have been touring with since October.

"This is the most tired I've ever been, but I love it," Shaw said, regarding the tour. "Not many people my age get the chance to see a different state every day, so I like to take advantage of it, and take a look around." Shaw often offers to drive during the grueling, 10-12 hour treks the band has had to make nearly every night after shows to stay on track on the tour. But all the musicians, though exhausted, agree that traveling through the beautiful plains of Utah in the delirious magic and insanity of the middle of the night, or the hilarious misadventures of stopping at the world's largest truck stop in backwoods Iowa at 3 a.m., where they found a life-size Michael Jackson doll, make touring a great adventure.

As lovers of the creative experience associated with recording, Hymns are anxious to lay down tracks for another album, but hesitant to get back to the studio at the same time. "I like (Travel in Herds) so much, I don't want to push it aside right now," said Harding. "But at the same time, I want to record new songs really badly."
"(Recording) is the most fun thing in the entire world," agreed Roberts.

But Roberts has plenty of fun on stage as well, and Hymns' concert-goers must be quick to pick up the quips dropped between tunes. As the melancholic twang of Harding's voice finished the final riff of "Off My Mind," Roberts stepped up to his microphone at stage left to address the audience. "So, you guys know we're on tour right now, but we got to sleep at our studio last night since it's nearby, in Celeste," Roberts said. "So this morning we got up and our drummer wrote this new song that we're about to play for you guys! "He's actually turning 21 today, why don't you guys give him a hand?" Roberts yelled to the audience, pointing at 22-year-old Kent, who smiled and nodded appreciatively at the applause which erupted from the floor.
"Yeah, so here's our new song, I hope it sounds OK. I hope you guys like it," Roberts said with a grin, as the band began strumming the first few chords of Tom Petty's "American Girl."

"Oh and by the way," he said, drifting away from the microphone and grinning wider still, his voice fading into the opening bars of the tune, "we're also full of shit…" And Roberts allowed himself a short mischievous smirk before the band started playing, concentration and focus apparent in their cabaret.

With ferocity unmatched, Roberts owns the stage during performances as he whirls, teeth-clenched and body pulsing, through his own tumbling art, while melodies, shooting like jets of water from his clean electric sound, twist in and around the vocals of Harding, his perfect musical complement. The throaty, thick, crooning notes of Harding's lyrics sit well amidst the spectacle of Hymns' music, a unique collection of instruments, melodies and rhythms that tie together at the seams like some fraying blue jean invention, held together drunkenly with scotch tape and bubble gum, but nonetheless perfect in its unfailing fit and elegance. It's a juxtaposed recording of city and country sounds, a cassette tape of classic rock done in modern style. The ingredients of a Hymns song mix seamlessly in their performance, and the listener can easily hear the influences of the iconic Tom Petty melt into the bluesy, organic sounds of The Band, which in turn fade to the timeless, folk-saturated dirtiness of Bob Dylan, complemented by a dash of cool 70's funk and classic country twang. But the musicality and showmanship are all their own.

Always stylish and never unattractive, Hymns appear on stage as a visual representation of their distinctive music - in dusty, dirty cowboy boots, with grungy, unwashed hair and scruffy, unshaven faces, the four men command all the eccentricities of confidence and rock-star-cool in their tight, city-slicker jeans, leather jackets, and chic Ray Ban sunglasses. Shaw, Roberts and Harding stroll around the stage in zigzag beelines, running into each other in rhythm to Kent's driving beats, pounded in with fierce concentration while he blows enormous pink bubble gum bubbles around his flying drumsticks. From the sultry, smooth sound of hazy, hot country afternoons reflected in tunes like "Time Told Me" to the eerie, haunting electric piano solos and barely spoken, staccato libretto of "Stop Talking," Hymns' set list proves to be a myriad of melodic individuality. And it comes from a band of individuals - a band who came together more from fate than from its members' aspirations to become musicians.

Originally, Harding, like most of his fellow band members, didn't plan on pursuing music as a career, and considered film school after high school before deciding to major in creative writing at Appalachian State. "(But) I fell for music more," he said, shrugging in contentment at the direction of his artistic career.

It is an attitude shared by Kent and Shaw, two musicians who, though they have played for years and always loved music, never consciously intended to become musicians. But Roberts always knew music was his calling. "I literally plan on playing guitar for the rest of my life," he said, his intense gaze expressing the pure artistic passion coursing through the band's members. "I'm not saying I'm going to be rich doing it, but there's nothing else I want to do in the whole world."

-Amelia Kreminski

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