Monday, January 18, 2010

The Mother Hips - Pacific Dust

The Mother Hips Pacific Dust

Camera Records, 2009

It is a common notion that there is an unavoidable trade-off between youth and experience in rock bands: the newly emerged have the unbridled energy and drive without the experience to keep things solid while the ones who have been around awhile might not burn as hot as they once did, but have the well-honed skill in their craft to make up for it. One could make a claim for this to be true with the Mother Hips in 2009, nearing 20 years together as a band and having just released their seventh studio album, Pacific Dust. There is something to be credited to survivors in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, at least to the ones who have done it with their artistic integrity intact. Who knows if the apparent wisdom comes from having survived or if the survival is a result of inherent wisdom? But few could argue with the experience of hearing such a band playing live in a room. Not many fans of good rock music seeing the Mother Hips for the first time can deny their quality. And if it’s true that they are now not as reckless and hell- bent as they once were, there is certainly an assuredly skilled and confident air to the way they perform, more than there was when they were starting out.

Pacific Dust is sonically a near-perfect presentation of the sound of The Mother Hips, and by that I mean the sound that happens when these four men are in the same room singing and playing together with no overdubs or studio trickery. Pacific Dust sounds as if the listener is in the sweet spot of an acoustically perfect venue while the band plays deep in a groove without technical worries or other distractions, utterly owning their songs. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Bluhm recently attributed this quality of Pacific Dust partly to The Hips’ ability, developed over years, to easily get the sounds they want out of their instruments and voices, but also to their familiarity with both San Francisco’s Mission Bells studio (of which Bluhm is co-owner) and their producer David Simon Baker (another co-owner of Mission Bells) which enabled them to capture the sounds far quicker than is typical and thus the band were still fresh and excited for each performance. As a result, Pacific Dust sounds not only assured, confident and effortless, but also very alive and intimate, like at a great rock show, as well as rich and lush like a great pop record. This is the true sound of The Mother Hips!

Many of the themes on this record reflect the places the songwriters of the Mother Hips find themselves in at this point in their lives: with wives and children and homes of their own; more settled and rooted than ever before. If that is a cliché of getting older, so be it. Bluhm and Greg Loiacono (lead guitar/vocals/songwriting) still write about this state of things with articulate artistry. Other reviewers have detected a theme of gratitude on this record and indeed it feels like The Mother Hips, having survived lineup changes, stylistic phases, personal demons related to the rock ‘n’ roll “indoor” lifestyle and the dreaded indefinite hiatus, have an immense gratefulness to still be making music together and to still have a modestly sized but deeply devoted audience. It is for all of these reasons together that Pacific Dust feels like both a milestone and a triumph simultaneously.

The record opens with key cut White Falcon Fuzz (inspired by the White Falcon guitar in the foldout inside cover of Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush LP), a rumination on the transfiguring power of music and how it can shape lives. It is both a looking back to the origins of the inspiration to pick up a guitar and an assessment of a musician’s place in the world after 20 years of being in a band. Although overstuffed with non-stop lyrics that barely give him time to breathe, Bluhm sings it seemingly effortlessly. The opening riff is crunchy, the guitar interplay is intriguing, the rhythm is kept cracking and sharp by the perfect timing and minimalist flair of drummer John Hofer and the mid-tempo song is held together by the melodic and complex bass playing from resident musical genius Paul Hoaglin. The backing choral vocals and ending guitar solo make this song soar, feeding off the simple joys of being satisfied and happy with all the good things in one’s life. The positive outlook is palpable and it is clear from the beginning of this album that The Mother Hips are personally and artistically in a very good place right now.

Thinking that our love will last is thinking that the part of our love that lasts is gonna be the good part… any legacy of mine is gonna be sunshine and I leave it behind as a sign of my love for mankind

All In Favor is Loiacono’s take on the same theme and is thus a kind of companion piece to White Falcon Fuzz, looking back at the personal life of the band with an honest, critical perspective

…the path of self-destruction -unlimited buffoonery in the dark …in beautiful theaters with their lights so blue and orange to help us feel important for awhile…our van caught on fire just like our egos…

but also looks forward with what may be either a sobering or promising thought for fans of this band:

“How long can music last?” She whispered into my ear

Pacific Dust hits its stride in earnest with the one-two power pop punch of Bluhm’s Jess OXOX and Loiacono’s The Lion and The Bull leaving me staggering, smiling and head-shaking at the pure pleasure delivered by melody, hooks, and harmonies that would make Jeff Lynne envious. And this is nothing new for The Mother Hips, they’ve been doing it for years. They firmly deserve a place in the music history texts beside ELO, Badfinger, Big Star, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, etc. as purveyors of sweet pop songs in the tradition of great 60s rock ‘n’ roll. When Bluhm and Loiacono jump a decade to emulate 70s AM radio on songs like One Way Out, Cheer Up Champ and All In Favor, I get the feeling it’s done with the utmost sincerity and honest appreciation for the genre. But the smooth and glossy sheen of these songs is tempered by the surprisingly bittersweet lyrical themes that are there for those not completely spellbound by the pop brilliance of the music. From the emotionally and physically wounded letter-writer who is the narrator of Jess OXOX to the relationship tensions of The Lion and The Bull to the Taoist/go-with-the-flow way of handling obstacles of One Way Out, these are pop songs with substance and true-to-life realism about human existence.

Although many of these songs brim with positivity, it’s not of a Pollyanna sort. Life for a moderately successful national-level rock band is surely not any easier now than it was 20 years ago. In fact, particularly in these times of economic problems, it may be harder. But The Mother Hips seem better equipped to handle the struggles of daily life as a rock band and to do so with a smile, even if it’s sometimes a wry laugh at one’s own foibles and idiosyncracies (“not that I need to get down any more than I already am, Henry the VIII made a much better friend”). All too often people are the biggest obstacle to their own contentedness in life. It seems that awareness of this has helped these songwriters become very content and comfortable with themselves and their positions in life as much so as they are as musicians in the studio and on the stage. But there is also darkness, anger, and discouragement on Pacific Dust, too. Third Floor Story, a 10 year old song about the tribulations of the music business, is a pulsating, percolating, snarling funk rocker rerecorded to finally appear on a Mother Hips album. Cheer Up Champ shows that a feeling of failure still sometimes haunts even the most talented of artists:

I can’t win it seems I can’t catch up to my dreams ‘cause its me that I’m fighting I’m riding back from a bad show I’m licking my wounds, yeah you know how it goes

But it’s also a self-pep talk (“cheer up, champ, at least you still got your health”) with the idea that feelings can be changed by changing one’s thoughts (“I’m able to sing because I’m able to fly…when the morning comes I’ll find my wings”) and thus brings us back to the positivity the album opens with.

Playing spot the influence in the music of The Mother Hips is an easy game. Obvious reference points for their original music include Neil Young, Merle Haggard, The Beach Boys, The Everly Brothers, The Bee Gees (in the 60s), and The Kinks. The Beatles’ legacy of influence, however, is rarely mentioned when people write about The Mother Hips and that is puzzling to me, because when you watch them play, just two guitars, three singers, bass, drums, and hear the rich and melodic sounds they make with just this simple arsenal of musical tools, the similarities are almost too obvious. The Beatles influence rises to the surface on the George Harrison-ish (courtesy of resident Beatle freak Hoaglin) slide guitar solo on One Way Out, the Abbey Road-like backing vocals on Cheer Up Champ and the string sections on All In Favor and Young Charles Ives.

There was a time in stonier days when the Hips dealt out quite a bit of dark psychedelia. And then there followed a time when that style of music became anathema to them as they aggressively resisted the jam band/hippie label. In 2009, the Hips seem to have come to peaceful terms with this facet of their music, reviving some of their older, extended jamming songs in their live show and even better, composing new songs in this vein. The title track of Pacific Dust, with its leaden, slow, and heavy riff is all early 70s proto-metal (think Black Sabbath , Spooky Tooth, Budgie, etc) was a rehearsal jam turned into a full fledged song by adding a melody and lyrics. Cheer Up Champ’s coda surprisingly morphs into a Cortez The Killer-like guitar jam, all dark, slow and drenched in feedback. In accordance with the theme of this record, the Hips seem grateful for where music has taken them in their lives and they no longer feel the need to shy away from any part of their musical past.

For me, not quite hitting the bullseye but coming close, the third quarter of the album is a bit of a lull. Young Charles Ives is a lyrically and musically interesting historical fiction piece from Loiacono about the childhood of the famed avant garde composer while Bluhm’s Are You Free, with its 80s synth arrangement lacks the immediate attractiveness of other songs on the record.

In spite of the strong opening, the brilliant mid-section and the third quarter lull, the album manages to reach its pinnacle at its finish, closing with a rare Loicacono-penned stone power-rocker, Bandit Boy, all nasty, heavy, guitar riffs and scorching vocals that make me want to fist-pump and shout in stoke followed by the clean, smooth white man’s 70s soul ballad/Neil Young noise-rock fadeaway, Bluhm’s Cheer Up Champ. These album closers, one from each of the principle songwriters in the band, again feel like companion pieces as they both delve into the psyche for some hard-earned insight about finding a Zen-like peace in life and/or integrating body, mind and soul. Musically they cap off the album, saving the best for last and leave me satisfied, grinning like a fool, convinced that one of the most talented and underrated rock bands of the last 20 years is still on top of their game, still mixing up nearly all of the music they are capable of into a strong album, polished, solid and head and shoulders above most of what passes for good rock music in the early 21st century.

White Falcon Fuzz video

Third Floor Story video

Pacific Dust video