Noah James Hittner – willing – Album Review
According to all the notes I’ve got scattered across my desktop, it’s safe to say that artist Noah James Hittner was born a man of music. The son of a Country-Rock legend, he’s currently based out of Madison, WI, he’s touring regularly, and has appeared several times on radio & television at this point in his career. Rumor has it, that for over three full decades, Noah shied away from his own natural talents before finally giving in and embracing them sometime around 2009, and he’s been rocking ever since. With a brand-new album called willing that he’s recorded, played, and produced entirely DIY on his own, Hittner has now added a third solo record to his catalog, and he’s clearly found his place in music at this point. willing is a stunning set of songs that makes the versatility, poetry, art, and craft of songwriting a priority, and highlights just how capable Noah James is as an artist throughout a blissful lineup of tunes.
I’m sure over the years I’ve asked hundreds of solo artists about the difficulties that come along with doing things on their own and going the DIY route. The consensus is almost always the same – the hardest thing is self-restraint, and knowing when a song is truly finished – which is exactly why, when you hear “The Trickster” start Noah’s new album with such a perfect dose of everything you need, you can audibly hear that he has a true gift when it comes to making music. Reminiscent of David Gray’s earlier folk albums, “The Trickster” is downright gorgeously written and certainly sounds that way too. I had no idea what I was in-store for with Hittner’s music, so as a first impression, consider me more than impressed; I was enjoying the acoustic instrumental intro to begin with, but to hear the man drop in the golden honey to the beautifully rich tones of “The Trickster” after about a minute in, was a serious treat. I’m loving the distant notes soaring into the song from the lead guitar as well as the gentleness of the beat that plays alongside the main melody from the acoustic…musically, Noah’s DIY methods are clearly getting the heart and passion right into his sound – “The Trickster” is as engaging and enticing as you could hope to find the gateway into an album to be. That combination of storytelling folk sound and the textures of gruff wisdom you can hear in the melody of the vocals from Noah sounds like he’s singing directly to you personally, giving this record an excellent opening that feels intimate, humble, and real. Like sitting on a train and day-dreaming as you stare out the window, thinking of all the possibilities and potential for the future – you listen to “The Trickster” lost in a warm, hypnotic, and comforting sound.
“A White Man’s Blues” flexes the diversity in sound you’ll find on willing immediately, switching up the style of this second tune about 180-degrees from the first experience. Finding himself somewhere in between David Gilmour and Gary Moore, Noah takes a moment here to pack in a full highlight reel’s worth of spectacular guitar moments, soloing & noodling away into the spacious & slow-crawling atmosphere surrounding him. In a mix of personal insights & observations, and bold social commentary, “A White Man’s Blues” pumps out a clever series of vibrant guitar notes and colorful harmonies, giving an artistic edge to this Blues-inspired jam – the expressive nature in both the music and vocals deserve a genuine shout-out for the awesomeness you’ll find. As history has reminded us several times over from those that have done it best – the blues are all about feelin’ it; to the point where if you can’t, you may as well pack your bags and go home – “A White Man’s Blues” proves that Noah has that strong connection to his material & music that you’re looking for as a listener. Right into the moment and feeling the vibe, whether with vocals or whether he’s going at the instrumental parts of “A White Man’s Blues” – Noah ends up in the thick of a remarkably creative cut that smartly fuses Psychedelic sound with the Blues, and a genuine message with his music that is sure to resonate with the people out there.
The pace picks up swiftly with “Listen To Your Home” working itself around a more Rock-inspired vibe, though still presented to ya in a fairly low-key way at the same time. Which makes it interesting to me – there’s a contrast of style & energy that works extremely well on “Listen To Your Home” – giving this cut real dimension that’s not typically found in any one kind of music; Noah’s a hybrid-type of artist and he’s got a lot of crossover sound working in his favor throughout this track. For real – try and define a track like this…it’s nearly futile…you can hear things like maybe a R.E.M. influence, or a bend towards the Beta Band or Hot Chip…the untamed wildness of earlier rock bands like Strawberry Alarm Clock…”Listen To Your Home” is like all of and none of these things – and ultimately, it’s a fantastic single-worthy cut. I went back & forth a little on the higher-up harmonies echoing in the chorus – but at the end of the day, I felt like I sided with the hooks…I mean, c’mon – they’re bulletproof strong, and the way Noah sings it from the lead, in particular the last line of the chorus each time, is freakin’ rad. I’ll say this…personally, I find the verses equally alluring here – I think the entire vocal flow, melody, and sound you’ll discover there has a powerful grip that could rival what the chorus will provide for many people listening like me. That being said, the biggest hooks of “Listen To Your Home” come out confidently seeking our approval and attain it quickly – this cut has the advantage of relentless energy and powerful doses of accessibility. Moments like around the 3:20 mark where Noah re-enters into the hooks of the verses and gives the sound even more depth before plunging into the wildness of the finale get an extra thumbs-up from me.
A long, long way removed from the opening sounds of “The Trickster” at this point on the record, “Porch Step” is one of the most divergent cuts you’ll find on this versatile album. Like as in, what if I told ya that Noah’s got bars y’all? Like…legit bars even. Look…Ed Sheeran didn’t create this style of cut, he just popularized it – and he doesn’t have a monopoly on it; Hittner sounds beefier and makes the rap come out with the strength it needs to sound convincing, and I dig that. Having said that…am I more partial to a cut like “The Trickster” and that side of Noah James’ sound? Personally, yes – that’s more towards where I’m at for my own taste – but what I appreciate, is the fact that Hittner’s finding success in multiple ways, dipping his toes into several pools of music and coming out victorious. Like, I wouldn’t take any points away from the man for “Porch Step” – and I’d be willing to bet on this being a favorite cut from willing for many people out there listening; we all like what we like – the quality never drops and that’s the main thing. I wasn’t expecting NJH to flip his cap backwards and get his rap goin’ on – to hear the results come out as strong as they were was equally unexpected, even though the man hasn’t given us a reason to doubt him so far. Reflecting on life, nostalgia, and experiences both good & bad – Noah proves he’s got the chops to write engaging material in several styles of music with “Porch Step.”
You really never know what’s coming around the corner on this album…it’s probably best to expect the unexpected when it comes to the sound of whatever that next track is going to be. As far as cohesion’s concerned – the cohesion is in the versatility…this record is an array of ideas, styles, and different approaches that all yield different results, but maintain the focus and quality every single time as well. Like I’ll admit, it’s an adjustment to go back to the soulful sounds of “Don’t Let Me Lose My Faith” after having just experienced “Porch Step” – each idea plays uniquely to its own design, know what I mean? All-in-all, willing has that like…greatest hits-like kind of flow to the lineup of songs – and obviously, there’s some real good in that too. “Don’t Let Me Lose My Faith” starts strong and gets continually stronger, going from the gentle & welcoming plodding along through the melody at the beginning and becoming quite the epic as it heads through the colorful solos and harmonies. Lyrically, it’s one of my favorites from Hittner so far…the imagery & selection of words in this story are powerful to begin with, but when coupled with the unencumbered way that NJH sings this with such passion, “Don’t Let Me Lose My Faith” gets that connection between the artist & the atmosphere that we all want to hear. For myself personally, the instrumental-based finale with the piano and the guitars was right where I was at…I loved the way this song breaks down & reveals a whole bunch more worth discovering at the end.
So…I…umm…okay…wait a minute here…in fact, wait a minute & twenty-three seconds of sheer sonic BRILLIANCE will ya please? LISTEN to “Solace” and how gorgeous this moment in time is! Noah – you’re killing me here brother…you’re telling me I only get a minute and twenty-three seconds of this? I could listen to this track all day long and never get bored, straight-up. The playful and intricate way that NJH works in several layers of looped guitars and such warmth through the glow of the synth atmosphere in the background…the stunning amount of charming personality of his musicianship…I mean…I know it’s a short & sweet tune & all, but “Solace” is a genuine highlight for its own verifiable reasons. If even for nothing else other than delivering on exactly what the title suggests it will, you’d still have to give this song an award, and it merits one for several other reasons as well if you ask me. “Solace” is an example of a completely perfect moment in time…to the point where there’s nearly nothing else that can be said – it’s as welcoming as a song can be, with really intriguing pieces that form its melodic puzzle. Once you’re right at the heart of “Solace” and its most involved, you can’t help but appreciate the endlessly friendly vibes that float throughout this tune and the impenetrable smile it’ll bring to your face. Love it.
In my opinion, it’s tracks like “Madness” that speak strongly on behalf of what Noah’s capable of. I’ve never really been a Blues guy myself…a couple songs here & there, but it’s far removed from my main diet – and generally, the reason why that is, is because not too many deviate far enough from the standards to make it interesting. That’s where NJH is excelling for me on tracks like “A White Man’s Blues” and “Madness” – he’s pushing the boundaries and borders to his advantage, bringing in listeners like myself with healthy helpings of crossover sound and genuinely engaging songwriting. The musicianship remains outstanding on all these tunes from willing, let’s just be clear about that as well. “Madness” still borrows heavily from the roots of the Blues genre at the end of the day, but it’s smart choices like the background vocals and effects on Hittner’s lead that give a song like this the extra edge and depth required to make a tune of this style have enough of a twist to stand out amongst the rest. When it comes to the instrumentation, NJH continually shows us he’s got that completely locked-down tight – his solo work on “Madness” is some of the finest you’ll find on this record. I dig how he uses the echoes to his advantage in both the music & vocals of this song as it bounces between the lefts & rights – the guitar is always going to be the main feature of this cut for me personally, but overall, you’re not going to find faults on a track like this – you might even say “Madness” is right in Noah’s wheelhouse.
Powerful words on “If You See Your Demon” inside the story of a father & son. Probably one of the most difficult cuts to examine on the record, “If You See Your Demon” does kind of feel like two different tracks with two completely different energies. If you’re asking me personally, I’m gonna tell ya that it’s the hooks found in the verses of this tune that have the most pull – I think NJH is arguably even at his most gripping in the most low-key moments of this crafty cut. When the energy amps up, I could never quite decide whether or not it felt like it fit with the rest of the chilled-out sound & rhythmic hand-claps from beforehand…though I did like each part of the song, and also loved the way that the verse drifts back in from the explosiveness of the chorus. What I do really dig is the sound of NJH on the mic once again, the beat & drums & hand-clap percussion work great, the guitars are as lively as ever; there’s a level of innovation and creativity that is exposed in an ambitious track like “If You See Your Demon” and its multi-dimensional sound. My ears are always going to appreciate an artist who reaches for more; pass or fail, sink or swim – it’s about challenging yourself as an artist, and NJH clearly gets that.
“Tribe” is dope! I’d put this right up there with the most accessible cuts from Hittner – the hooks on this track completely land and the music is as smooth as smooth can be. I also think he did a great job of making this track echo the sentiment of its core meaning and title – it sounds like he’s got a whole “Tribe” with him on the mic, but remember folks – this is the work of just one man! Lyrically, I think NJH also puts some of his best on display – but recognize just how much of a role the flow of the words rolling with the melody and his professional precision on the m-i-c are a factor in bringing the lyrics to life in a vibrant way they’ll get noticed. Doing his best to separate facts from fiction, what’s perception versus what’s reality – NJH keeps the music & vocals of “Tribe” flowing fluidly, sounding fully dialed-in and groovin’ with verifiable smoothness from beginning to end. When you dig right into the complexity of the words he’s stringing together really are, you’ll appreciate just how flawlessly “Tribe” moves – it’s much more than a song with lyrics that snap to the beat spot-on, Hittner reveals some of this most insightful messages & social commentary throughout his words, all while keepin’ the grooves in the music comin’ atcha at all times. It’s a flashy cut, perfectly executed, with massive crossover potential.
Some of the cleanest acoustic moments like you’ll find on “The Trickster,” “Solace,” and the absolutely enchanting “Madison” allow Noah’s songwriting & performances to shine at their brightest. “Madison” is another of the shortest cuts on the album, but again, one of the sweetest you’ll find when it comes to the heartfelt sound. Kind of in that Paul Simon-esque style of writing when it comes to the lyrical aspect – maybe even arguably the rest of the track as well…all I can tell ya for sure is that I found “Madison” outright mesmerizing to listen to. Like…I think it’s one of Hittner’s best performances when it comes to how well his vocals suit this song – and if I’m being honest, I think the guitar surrounding the verses might be even more appealing somehow! “Madison” is another exceptional highlight on willing – the recording & production are fantastic – but the same could be said for the entire idea, concept, and overall execution on this song; I think it’s one of Noah’s most focused & realized tracks on the album. While the ingredients may be few, everything he’s doing from the music to the microphone stands out for all the right reasons, stocked full of melody that speaks straight to the heart…the instrumentation he’s written & the guitars surrounding the verses are strong enough to move a person to tears I tell ya. I found myself fascinated by this melodic gem from NJH – I think it’s one of his best without question.
He did it again! Noah gives you just over ninety-seconds of a spectacular jam on “Your Love Is My Medicine,” virtually forcing you to click repeat via audible awesomeness, which I’ve happily done many times over. Even after the versatile set that NJH has put into willing, “Your Love Is My Medicine” still seems to somehow come out of left-field with another variation of his style & sound once again shining for completely different reasons than the rest of the songs. Taking a minute-thirty-ish ride on a highly danceable beat and insatiably stunning hook – the dreamy way Hittner sings his way through “Your Love Is My Medicine” was spot-on to what this song called for. Within ten-seconds, this tune is already moving brightly & brilliantly – and before you’re even twenty-seconds in, you get your first dose of the incredible hooks that Noah works with on the microphone to bring this track together tightly around the main melody. Short, sure – but “Your Love Is My Medicine” makes a huge impression with its extremely inviting sound and sweetened sentiment – this is definitely going to be a hit with listeners out there.
As IF there needed to be an additional wow-factor that NJH hasn’t given us already, willing flexes its dimension and depth one last time on one last highlight before the experience is over with “Elissa Said.” Another cut where’s it’s impossible to pin him down, this final track is part Indie/Rock/Pop/Electro and more, bringing that hybrid aspect of Hittner’s style to the surface one more time before the record ends. Really rad transitions throughout “Elissa Said” – once you’ve made it to the end, realize how far you’ve traveled with this tune and how much ground was actually covered – and then recognize how seamlessly the entire experience was. The opening guitars on this track sold me even before the first beat of the drums hit if I’m being truthful…gorgeous tones with that beautiful bend & flexibility to the sound…almost like something close to “Drown” by Smashing Pumpkins…that kind of feel at times. The majority of “Elissa Said” has a much sunnier disposition and pep in its step than the Pumpkins tune ever did though…no question about that. The energy supplied by the beat in this song instantly changes the course you’ll have thought it was on in the brief intro, and soon enough, you’re surrounded by addictive & radiant sound coming at ya with a much more rapid pace. You add in that Electro twist towards the 3:30 mark and how incredible that moment becomes as the song heads towards its finish – and believe me, you’ll find that Noah’s given you the true finale you’re looking for on a record with “Elissa Said.” It’s fun, it’s thought-provoking too…like listen to the burst into the hooks of the chorus just prior to the first minute, and tell me if it doesn’t have that…Ben Folds-like cleverness in the songwriting, sound, and approach! The verses give this last track a more decisively Rock-inclined edge, but the way the entire song springs to life for its main hooks gives it a wider degree of accessibility and chance to entertain ya. Noah James Hittner has given us plenty of reasons to listen to willing from start to finish – diversity is his strength, and execution is his gift – he’s got imagination, heart, and passion radiating from this record.
Find out more about Noah James Hittner at the official pages below!
Main Website: https://www.noahjameshittner.com