Nashville Meets Hawaii: An Album Review Of ‘The Isle Of Forgotten Dreams’ By Hawaiian Noir Duo Hula Hi-Fi

As those of us who live in Nashville know, we can’t escape the over-saturation of Hawaiian Noir bands invading our town. Back in the day, when one might stroll down Broadway, all you could hear are ukuleles, breezy steel guitars, and seductive, sultry vocals emanating out of the barroom windows and doors. Welp, we’ve got another one on our hands.

All jokes aside, singer and uke picker Danica Dora and steel guitar maestro Joshua Kaler are the duo behind Hula Hi-Fi that are making some very original music in Music City. 

Hula Hi-Fi displays this originality and uniqueness on their debut album, The Isle of Forgotten Dreams, which just dropped less than two weeks ago. Dora and Kaler took their rare sound one step further and hired the powerful backing of The Brno Philharmonic Orchestra of the Czech Republic to add an immense level of theater and lush melancholy already existing within the music. The contrast in the blending of such typically sunny, joyous island music and whisking in dark, ominous tones is captivating and mesmerizing to say the least.

But enough of me blabbing and providing factual and speculative context- here’s a quick breakdown of the songs and a final sentiment on the album.

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Tropicali Sunset- Upon firing up The Isle of Forgotten Dreams, one is immediately swept up in the delightfully sultry and mysterious aura of ukulele and steel guitar, and there’s no telling where these sonic trade winds will take you. The opening track’s orchestral swell and ambience could take you to the dark corridors of Hawaii, or perhaps a similar tropical isle. The melancholy is palpable, and the sexy, mysterious rhythms tantalize and beckon to the unknown. Perhaps you must listen on for answers…

The Isle of Forgotten Dreams- We’re then brought to the title track of the album, and this time we’re introduced to the vocals of Josh Kaler and Danica Dora layered with more of the same seductive island tones, this time introducing a more spy movie tone to it, which will be present much throughout. Kaler showcases his incredible steel guitar/guitar skills, and this tropical David Lynchian sonic adventure is just setting sail…

Crooked Hearts- Their single, “Crooked Hearts,” couldn’t reflect the term Hawaiian Noir any more fittingly. The song’s moody, dramatic delivery is only magnified by the music video in a most enchanting and cinematic way. You might even hear a sliver of Portishead in there, and it sounds like it could easily be the intro for the next James Bond film. I can picture the silhouette pointing the gun at the camera and digitized blood ooze down the camera lens while hearing the lyric, “cast a secret to the ocean floor.” 

Archipelagos- This is where they tap into their more dream-pop singer-songwriter sound. Dora showcases her vocal cadence in this track, and despite the more upbeat sound, they never stray too far from their mysterious, melancholy delivery. Though it displays more of that typical singer-songwriter style, Kaler doesn’t let you forget you’re still flying Hawaiian Airlines.

Waterworn- Dora picks up where she left off with this number. The ukulele and vocals, soon joined by Kaler to add depth, submerge you to the ocean floor among the coral, urchins, and sea creatures. The orchestra backs this track up most pleasantly, and per usual, it never feels like there’s too much or too little going on.

Interlude- The rhythmic, almost percussive ukulele leads to pre-recorded snippets of someone, somewhere, before leaving you like a fluttering leaf from a Banyan tree, down, down down and into the breeze of Kaler’s alluring steel guitar. I can’t stress how much this makes me think of Bond films. Class, charm, and sophistication splash and stir from the speakers throughout.

At Bay- Again the steel guitar leads to uke picking, and Dora continues her entrancing tear through the album. “By all means/Chase your dreams/If that means/Goodbye.” Talk about goosebumps. So much raw, painstaking emotion throughout the record, perhaps none more so than this track. With this one I get more of a dark Disney feel. Someone get this band a deal with a production company. 

The Sleepy Coast- Again we get a more percussive number with this track. “Once I was a castaway/And dare I say/It was brilliant.” This one starts off a little less dreamy and island-y, but Kaler soon administers a lethal dose of steel, never letting you forget the roots of this band. For some reason I get a little Mac DeMarco feel from this track, not sure why. If this album was a deck of cards, I feel the “Sleepy Coast” might be the joker. 

Valentine- Again, if this were a deck of cards, we’d obviously have the hearts here- but which? Well, I’d probably say the Queen. Is Dora the queen? Who’s to say. But either way, this Queen of Hearts no doubt has a dagger clutched in her grip. This is another number to hypnotize, immobilize, and sympathize. 

Sail On, My Love-  Then we get more of a stripped down, dare I say feel-good tune with this one. This one has almost a tickle of Sgt. Pepper’s or Magical Mystery Tour-style psychedelia to it, but just a pinch. It makes me think of the McCartney classic “When I’m 64” in particular. 

Tropicali Sunrise- Ahh, a fitting twist indeed. Start with the sunset, end with the sunrise. And it’s a most fitting ending for this incredibly unique album. Just Dora and Kaler, instrumentally, bidding an island breeze of an adieu, simply with the strings of the ukulele and the steel guitar. Simply endearing.

Overall: A damn fine album, and a much needed breath of fresh, island air. Very cinematic, seductive, moody, and masterfully produced. If nothing else, Hula Hi-Fi is one of the most original acts in Nashville. Show me a band that’s like them and I’ll show you my collection of football trophies.

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