album review: red herring

What does the phrase “coming-of-age” make you think of? Scenes out of Juno or Palo Alto, perhaps, with the sweet and tragic bouts of awkwardness backed by a ukulele track? Or maybe you’re reminded of personal memories that reel in your head like a Super 8. No one assigns the same aesthetics to their “coming-of-age” manifestations, but everyone knows the feeling; the all-too familiar growing pains that everyone can recognize but can only attempt to capture.

This is an idea that Ian Ruhala, fondly known as Hala, explores in his studio debut Red Herring. Released on May 1st, two days before his 23rd birthday, Hala flips through the metaphorical photo album of his first adult years on Red Herring. The album suggests that the growing pains don’t stop—we just get used to them. 

Hala’s cheeky motifs of love and romance follow him through each of his releases, be it the folksy “Acid Wash Jeans” from his first project, 2015’s Young Alumni, or the soft and simple “What is Love? Tell Me Is It Easy?” from the 2016’s beloved Spoonfed. Red Herring clings to these motifs while daringly pushing Hala’s production out of its old skin. 

The title track “Red Herring” is the most evident example of this growth. The bluesy riff pulls the listener in immediately, later exploring the layers of viola, piano, and keys that make the song float. The album’s introductory track “Turn Out Right” is from a dimension far beyond Hala’s past recordings. The echoing cowbells and leading keys seem to reflect the album art, in which Ruhala stands in a dark red kaleidoscopic still. Hala even animates some of these songs to life, with the help of artist Dylan Odbert, whose visuals have been a part of collaborations with indie-rock band Modest Mouse and three years of the Coachella music festival.

Standout tracks like “Making Me Nervous” and “Why Do You Want Anything to Do With Me?” illustrate Hala’s self-defined “genre-agnosticism” with obvious influences that span decades. The first seconds of “Making Me Nervous” are reminiscent of fusion and jazz before being shattered by R&B and dream pop melodies. “Why Do You Want Anything to Do With Me?” combines keys with 2000’s indie rock riffs to make a track straight from an 8-bit video game menu. 

Red Herring ends on the humble track “True Colors,” which not only foils the preceding title track, but defies the entire sound of the album. The shape of the song is modest, where the only two instruments are a baritone ukulele and Hala’s vocals. However, it is a neat wrap-up to an album that bounces around the room. Beginning with “True colors are showing / and my skin is glowing / at the thought of what is to come” and ending with “The blood is running and I / regret all that I have done,” the end track brings the cycle of growing up full circle. 

Like all cycles, the one of coming-of-age is bound to repeat. Red Herring reminds the listener that maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

Hala’s “Red Herring” tour with support from Pony and BOYO is postponed until further notice.

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