Hallelujah Hell Yeah, the title of the third album from Pittsburgh’s String Machine, is the perfect motivational affirmation for the times in which we’re living. All of our actions are compromised, in some respects. So it’s just easier to live our lives embracing that we all left the assembly line a little dinged up and oblong. Like using the right amount of force to guide a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel, the best we can hope for is getting to a place of equilibrium. On this new collection of tunes, lead String Machine songwriter and de facto leader David Beck illustrates our inescapable reality as he trades in his obsessions with the damaged soundscapes and obtuse narratives of homespun, lo-fi masterminds like Neutral Milk Hotel and The Microphones for a set of life-affirming songs with the grandeur of Arcade Fire and the tunefulness of The New Pornographers.
While String Machine’s 2019 album Death of the Neon had shown Beck’s strengths as a songwriter and arranger, the concept of the group as a “collective” showed through in their music, sounding more like a collection of individual performances than a group of musicians playing together. Where instruments would once pile on to fit the sprawl, now arrangements swell and assimilate into the album’s hook-filled movements. At times, the effectiveness of the band’s compact presentation evokes a more analog and earthbound Electric Light Orchestra running through the songbook of Conor Oberst.
In a recent conversation I had with Beck for a forthcoming episode of the Ears to Feed In Conversation podcast, Beck recalled listening to Motion City Soundtrack and Tom Petty’s Wildflowers while writing some of the material on Hallelujah Hell Yeah. He explained that listening to and thinking about how those artists would convey their emotions in ways that would not only please the members of their bands, but would also be enjoyable to see as an audience member attributed to the streamlined focus this time around. As the tried-and-true scripture from Saint Thomas Petty reads, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”
These moments of self-awareness and self-actualization paid off wonderfully on the album, as in a just and fair world, Hallelujah Hell Yeah will take String Machine up a font size on festival lineup posters in 2022. While the layered hooks and big choruses to songs like “Churn It Anew” and “Touring in January’’ recall the approachable culture domination of early-aughts indie rock, you can visualize Beck and co. dismantling the stage while rocking the fuck out on the heavy outro to the otherwise tender and openhearted “Dark Morning (Magnetic).”
If there is a trick that you can single out as to why Hallelujah Hell Yeah is such a triumph, it’s that it feels nostalgic and unpredictable all at once. While the intricate orchestrations feel as though they could splinter off and cause carnage on the ground as they achieve liftoff, Beck’s earnest and hopeful perspective throughout the album feels like an Alka-Seltzer being dropped into your favorite mug after a tumultuous night out. On the horn-led “Eyes Set 4 Good,” he lays out how conquering the bumpy road ahead is easier when it’s acknowledged and given full attention: “There are holes in my heart that are bigger than some / But there’s little ones in the bunch / I’ve got my eyes set on home for good.”
Hallelujah Hell Yeah is the kind of record that makes you remember what indie rock can do. With String Machine, Beck has created a musical vehicle that is as ambitious as it is inviting. This is a record that should inspire weekend warriors making music with friends in cramped practice spaces to think about stage plotting and putting in the long hours of refinement that it takes to go legit. As much as the cards are stacked against us, the pursuit of something greater can never be discounted. Hallelujah, hell yeah, man.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.