"People think that Florida is all beaches, and it's one of the most rural places you can be," points out John Orth, the quavering lyricist who holds the mike for the Gainesville electro-country outfit.
Born in Jacksonville, Orth is a Florida cracker, a scrub pine of a man: tall, thin, and slightly crooked in interesting places. He has an openness about him that's hard to find in folks over the age of 26, and he keeps a canoe strapped to the hood of his car at all times. "Just being in Gainesville, in this part of Florida, the landscape is so prominent and so lush and alive. It's hard to distance yourself from nature here," says the singer, who begins "Abraham Lincoln," the first track of the band's self-titled debut, with an image that sticks like a Sun Pass to your windshield: "The deer and the antelope at play/The hiccup of the telephone wires/Birds tossed in and out of the fray/The clouds rush in and lose focus."
Three years ago, Orth, Tobi Echevarria, Ryan Gensemer, Jeff Hays, and Michael Johnson intersected in Gainesville's crisscrossed community of musicians to form the band. (To examine the gnarled roots of its lineage, run a "Holopaw" search on gainesvillebandfamilytree.com.) This week, its debut emerges from Sub Pop Records like a mint julep in the hand of a Yankee secretary or a martini mixed for a cowboy: a simple, beautiful melding of wood-bare Americana country rock (think Whiskeytown) with electronic soundscapes paved by synthesizers (think Modest Mouse, whose guitarist and vocalist Isaac Brock plays with Orth in another band, Ugly Casanova). Tracks called "Short-Wave-Hum (Stutter)" share space with songs like "Pony Apprehension" on this album, but the lyrics are consistent -- and consistently lovely.
"Your wide open spaces and your shivering places/Are the pushpins in the map I'm poring over," sings the man who considers songwriting an unpolished talent. "I still associate more and think of myself more as a visual artist, with the music being secondary to that," adds Orth, who goes to Hays or Johnson with a melody after he's written the lyrics. "I've never really thought of myself as being a poet at all. It's not a label I'd be comfortable with."
Orth says most of his songs begin as visual metaphors, a style shared by Sub Pop labelmate and touring partner Sam Beam of Iron and Wine. Having traveled with Ugly Casanova last June and picked up an advance copy of Holopaw from the label, Beam is full of compliments for the CD, the band, and its singer: "They're awesome, aren't they? [Orth] has the voice of an angel. Just beautiful."
The preoccupation Beam and Orth share with visual imagery followed a similar educational path. Orth graduated from Florida State University in 1992 with a B.A. in fine arts, while the Miami Beach-based Beam attended FSU's graduate program in film in the late Nineties. Photographers both, the two cite the South as a major influence. Orth's portfolio boasts a collection of old motel signs, turning and falling like autumn leaves, all within a 100-mile radius of Gainesville.
"To see how many [motel signs] have fallen since I started makes me feel an urgency. I grew up in Jacksonville and just seeing how quickly it's being carved up, and knowing that's the fate of the rest of Florida, kind of makes me really sad," says Orth. Though the Vanderbilt kids on Nashville's Second Avenue could just as easily dig the slide guitar, finger-picking, and acoustic longing of the debut, Holopaw is about as Florida as you can get -- without a recount or alligator bite -- from its name on. "There's a town outside of Orlando called Holopaw," Orth explains. "I was looking through a book that talked about the origins of names of towns and just came across that word and thought it was particularly beautiful and simple."
Orth admits that it might be his desire to capture the fleeting that motivates him to read books on Florida history, visit dilapidated tourist stops with a camera, and write lines like "She was breathing smoke rings like little lassos/He was bobbing like a bird on the edge of his glass."
"I think a lot of it is really small moments," he muses. "Very minuscule details that are given weight just have a lot of meaning behind them."
"Hula-La," the song from which that last line was taken, is possibly the album's best. Tangled in the slow dawdle of new affection, it's a sweet tune, a patchwork of guitar and synthesizer both seamless and ethereal, which is why Orth's image of "the murky glow of candles on a cake" fits perfectly.
Wax and sugar, acoustic and electronic; things that seem to go awry on paper sometimes work out better than expected in reality. "I went recently with a friend to try to find these caverns outside of Ocala," Orth remembers. "There was supposed to be a boat ride underground in this cave, but this wrestler named Man Mountain Dean had built a professional wrestling museum inside the cavern. This guy was amazing to look at. I love that sort of really ridiculous tourist culture. The fact that it's in such disrepair now, such decay, makes it even more poignant."