[GARAGE ROCK, GROWN UP] Hey Lover is like, a bajillion years old.
In Portland band years, that is. By the regular old Gregorian calendar, the garage-rock two-piece—which releases its new album, Tennessee, on Sept. 23—appeared with a self-titled debut only four years ago. But in a town where a Best New Band (Hey Lover made the list in 2007) can rise and fall with remarkable speed, Hey Lover is an old-timer.
That might not be such a bad thing. Certainly, it's cool by the husband-and-wife duo, Justin and Terah Beth Varga. Sitting in a Foster-Powell bar, the easygoing couple—Justin has dark features and a pensive air; Terah Beth is blond, an elfin twinkle in her eye—say they don't feel rushed about making music. After all, for them, Hey Lover is more a lifestyle than an urgent project. Justin and Terah Beth learned their instruments—electric guitar and drums, respectively—together roughly a decade ago, and they've only played together since. "It just sort of feels like part of life," Terah Beth says.
It's not for lack of trying, though, that the band hasn't produced a full-length since 2007. The Vargas tried to record a follow-up themselves, but they were stymied by problems both technical and creative. "We needed help," Justin says. "Sometimes that's hard to admit, or understand."
That help came from Rick Duncan, a music-scene friend who was looking for projects for his new studio. Hey Lover gratefully acquiesced to being a guinea pig, and credits Tennessee's polished sound not only to Duncan's engineering, but to the studio itself. Located in a '70s-era accounting firm, Duncan's facilities provided the band with space "to explore a little more," Justin says. "And, in my opinion, I think it helped a lot."
Indeed, the record that came out of that accounting office doesn't just have higher production values than Hey Lover's debut; it's also a more mature album. In most ways, the Hey Lover on Tennessee is the same Hey Lover as ever: a garage-rock band with a pop sensibility and a punk heart (not to mention an arrestingly frenetic stage presence). Those traits are evident on lead single "Our Heads in a Hole," a cry against Portland winters that displays genetic Hey Lover traits such as shouted dual vocals, ebullient drum work and catchy guitar lines. But while the record features plenty of poppy, fun songs, as well as fast-and-furious tracks like "Piranha," there are also pleasant surprises such as album sign-off "I Can Tell," a slow dance anchored by Justin's frail-sounding vocals and swelled by cello and horns.
"Before," Terah Beth says, "I used to always be sort of scared of slow songs, like it was going to turn people off from our music." Instead, much of the positive early feedback the band has gotten for Tennessee has centered on the album's sway-along tracks. That's probably because those songs display musicians newly at ease with themselves—and willing to let listeners lean in close.
"We're not as scared of downtime, or slower stuff, or laying an emotion out rather than just trying to blast out sound," Justin says. "I think we've become more comfortable being vulnerable."
SEE IT: Hey Lover plays the Kenton Club on Friday, Sept. 23, with Pelican Ossman. 9 pm. Free. 21+.