In this edition: The Mother Hips, The Orange Peels, The Winery Dogs, Oblivians, and Red Hare.
Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
The Mother Hips: Behind Beyond (Mother Hips Records)
A wide reach, curious characters, punchy, melodic oomph, and layered, historically aware substrata are predictable aspects of any Mother Hips album, but Behind Beyond (released July 9) is an evident evolutionary step for this hyper-gifted California combo as they slide into their 20th year. As pure a rock sound as ever generated – pretty much the ideal distillation of two electric guitars, a swoon of great voices, a lock-tight rhythm section, and a smart sprinkling of additives – continues to prevail on this album (produced with intuitive knack and palpable presence by Dave Simon-Baker and the band) but this round it’s married to the most folkloric, psychologically complex, and downright bard-like themes the Hips have ever explored.
The only real point of comparison is the Hunter-Garcia and Barlow-Weir writing teams of the Grateful Dead. For all the Dead’s clinging cultural baggage, they produced one of the finest American Music songbooks ever penned, and the pulsing proof of this is the sustained relevance and proliferation of their tunes decades on from the band’s final bow. There is great understanding of the human condition and the tales we tell to understand it in the Dead’s music, but that strain has never been really been apparent in the Mother Hips despite being both California and SF Bay Area-based. However, direct contact with the source material and its creators in recent years has clearly rubbed off in winning ways on Behind Beyond. Songwriter-singer-guitarists Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono have become regulars at Phil Lesh’s Marin clubhouse Terrapin Crossroads and Bob Weir’s Sweetwater Music Hall, and Bluhm did a stint with The Rhythm Devils a few years back. Even the odd Dead tune has filtered into Hips sets, including a rugged take on “The Other One” that suits them better than one might imagine.
However, none of this is offered to say Behind Beyond sounds like the Grateful Dead. What’s occurred is some of the Dead’s deep currents, knotted compositional flourishes, and ontological vigor has found its way into what the Hips do. Opening with a verse worthy of “It was a dark and stormy night,” this album burrows into the American psyche – really the human psyche but geography and the flag under which one lives surely possess influence – and draws us into pieces that are everyday wise and workaday comforting:
Something like a dream came/ It was black and winged/ In the morning of my trial/ And it gave me sad advice
While the Mother Hips have rarely trucked in basic boy-girl/party time pop themes, there’s no missing how Behind Beyond wrestles with bigger ideas and their pertinence to our lives in dynamic new ways. Prying open the bars of prisons we don’t even realize we’re inside and taking up arms against our collective fears, this song cycle drinks “the blood of ancient ones” and emerges wiser, true sons of Adam and Eve where knowledge is both a blessing and a curse. That rock isn’t often known for such sweep and scope just makes how beautifully executed this set is all the more impressive. Nothing is lost of the Hips’ earlier charms – the sinewy guitar charge, the voluptuous bass grip (courtesy of much missed Hip Paul Hoaglin, whose golden touch is all over this album), the gliding, empathetic percussion of John Hofer, the well placed keyboards (courtesy of SF ace Danny Eisenberg) or the interlaced, honeyed voices of Bluhm and Loiacono – but a host of freshly appealing traits begins to emerge by the time this “bittersweet music making” resolves.
Pain and pleasure, hope and hurt ping around Behind Beyond, handled with clear-eyed, far horizon grasping expertise, the Mother Hips unmistakably the descendents of greats like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Moby Grape but delivered without a desire to be anything other than themselves. Yes, “Toughie” could slot onto American Beauty without a hitch, but there’s far more here that’s so Hips-esque it could be no one else, including some of the darkest corridors they’ve ever wandered down like “Jefferson Army,” which manages to weave the long proposed new Pacific State of Jefferson together with the modern Tea Party, Second Amendment solutions mindset:
We saw Red Dawn/ We will fight on/ They double-crossed us/ They won’t outfox us
Our fathers taught us young how to aim and shoot a gun/ And we will not leave these mountains without a hail/ Of lead around us/ We are the Jefferson Army
If parts of Behind Beyond make one uncomfortable I think they’re meant to. Rather than pursue a path of familiarity, where they shore up their strengths and freeze out newness, the Mother Hips have boldly expanded into unfamiliar territory, stretching themselves musically, lyrically and every which way. It’s hoped that their fans still clinging to notions of sequels to Later Days and Shootout will hitch up their britches and follow them because this chapter reckons to be one of the most fruitful and exciting yet. This is immediate, potent music about how we interact and what we carry forward generation-to-generation in our collective reservoirs, the stuff that endures and sustains us as well as the insidious elements that bedevil humanity. Littered with quotable nuggets and sweet ass musical curves, Behind Beyond, as its title implies, grapples with the past and the future while offering a strong hand to hold in the present. Significant sounds from one of the most significant rock ‘n’ roll bands of the past quarter century. (Dennis Cook)
Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
The Orange Peels: Sun Moon (Mystery Lawn Music/Minty Fresh)
Kicking off with DI’s favorite opening cut of 2013 (check it out below), Sun Moon (released May 14) is cultured pop-rock perfection. Reportedly more loosely created than earlier Orange Peels efforts, the album nonetheless moves with beautiful sureness, the melodies irresistible and the words thought provoking and sing-along ready. We’re talking prime Badfinger, Prefab Sprout and, more obscurely, The Sneetches territory, and like these bands’ jewels No Dice, Two Wheels Good and Blow Out The Sun, this record just gets better the longer one lives with it, the buoyant but pleasantly honest mood drawing one to revisit it, particularly when juggling problems or facing down one’s shortcomings. Without being pushy, one feels a glimmer of luminous hope stir listening to Sun Moon, one feeling lighter, swept up in the glorious, layered vocals, intoxicating guitars (John Moremen is just so damn tasty), and rhythm pull of Jill Pries and Gabriel Coan, who strongly recall Cheap Trick in their unfussy, muscular steadiness. Bandleader Allen Clapp (vocals, guitar, keys) is a bit of a pop genius, one of those cult adored but criminally under-recognized musicians that has steadily pumped out great music for many years. That said – and it’s worth noting I use ‘genius’ VERY sparingly – Sun Moon is his most instantly appealing AND long lasting album yet, and part of that may be how the rest of the band was more intimately involved in shaping this inclusive, very alive set. This might be the sleeper future-classic of 2013. (DC)
Ron’s Picks of the Week:
The Winery Dogs: self-titled (Loud & Proud)
For anyone into the technicality of hard rock, the combination of guitarist Richie Kotzen, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy is simply unfuckwithable. Formed in part thanks to Eddie Trunk of That Metal Show fame – who suggested Kotzen after original member John Sykes of Thin Lizzy/Whitesnake/Blue Murder fame backed out (DAMMIT!) – the debut album from The Winery Dogs is everything you’d expect from a power trio consisting of men who held rank in such groups as Mr. Big, Dream Theater and the David Lee Roth Band (we will forget about Kotzen’s brief tenure in Poison, thank you very much) – meaty, monster AOR riffs and stellar interplay between all three players bolstered by the surprisingly fine singing voice of Kotzen, who sounds like Chris Cornell if he was more Sunset Strip than Seattle. Fans of Sykes will certainly wonder “what if” in terms of how this album would’ve sounded had he stuck with it (though there is allegedly a new solo album from the guitarist on the horizon for later this year), but for what it’s worth, these Dogs are definitely worthy of that Best in Show blue ribbon. (Ron Hart)
Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Oblivians: Desperation (In The Red)
The Replacements aren’t the only old man punk band that reunited in 2013. Exactly twenty years after forming out of the Memphis garage scene of the early 90s, The Oblivians make a mighty return to acetate with their first LP of new material since 1997’s …Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron. Produced by Greg Oblivian (aka Greg Cartwright) at Dan Auerbach’s Nashville studio Easy Eye Sound, Desperation (released May 28) picks up on the lo-fi fury the trio made their calling card on such early classics as Soul Food and Popular Favorites while combining it with the throwback vibe of Cartwright’s other group Reigning Sound and the urban grit of Jack Oblivian’s excellent 2011 solo album Rat City to craft 14 songs sure to put a smile on their adopted son Jay Reatard’s face up in Heaven. Welcome back, boys! (RH)
Ron’s Bonus Review:
Red Hare: Nites at Midnite (Hellfire-Dischord)
Anyone aware of the DC hardcore scene beyond Minor Threat/Fugazi and Bad Brains knows about Swiz, one of the Capitol City’s most talented purveyors of melodic mayhem. The band had gotten together here and there since they called it quits in 1990, but it’s been over 15 years since any of the members had worked together as they were busy breaking ground in such other influential acts as Garden Variety, Bluetip, Jesus Eater and Retisonic. But now, three of the original members of Swiz – original Dag Nasty vocalist Shawn Brown, guitarist Jason Farrell and bassist Dave Eight – have reunited with Garden Variety/Bluetip drummer Joe Gorelick under the name Red Hare. Working with J. Robbins of Jawbox, Nites at Midnite (released May 21) is a total throwback to the days when the 9:30 Club was more than just a venue for NPR’s snooty simulcasts and is well worth checking out if want to hear the sound of prime Chocolate City at its loudest and proudest. (RH)