Though all you fair-weather ‘90s alt-rock fans may have counted ‘em out, the Cali combo is very much active, as evidenced on an excellent new album.
BY TOM SPEED
When guitarists Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono formed The Mother Hips from their dorm room at Cal State-Chico nearly 25 years ago, they probably didn’t envision putting out their 8th studio album in the year 2013, much less the fact that it would be delivered via vinyl record and something called a digital download. After all, 1990 was the dawn of the CD age and vinyl was becoming a relic and the Internet was still under the purview of uber-geeks and Al Gore.
Looking back, it might seem equally as unlikely that they would’ve made it this far. Theirs is a classic tale of a supremely talented band flying criminally under the radar of mainstream acclaim. There have been the brushes with the big time, like when they were signed to Rick Rubin’s American Records alongside The Black Crowes and others before the label lost interest and dropped them in the mid-‘90s. Then there were the requisite dust-ups, break-ups and inevitable lineup changes. They had farewell concerts, reunion concerts, released albums on labels, released albums independently, put out a retrospective box set, pursued other projects and generally ebbed and flowed in and out of each other’s orbit. As for right now, they’re back in that orbit and humming along at a comfortable and rhythmic whirr.
One of the unseen forces that seems to draw them back under the gravitational pull of The Mother Hips is a deeply devoted fanbase in their native California. While their touring radius never extended much beyond the Western US over the decades, in many ways it didn’t need to. The fans kept bringing them back together and loyally supporting them, even pushing them. Two different documentary films have been produced about the band and their tribulations and triumphs. Those fans will not be disappointed with Behind Beyond (www.motherhips.com).
The band’s oeuvre has shifted over the years, from hook-heavy pop to crunchier, prog-influenced rock epics and country-tinged, pastoral outings. Since their inception, there have been other bands come along to cultivate similarly adept brands of Americana music. Fans of folks like Wilco and Dr. Dog might be surprised to learn that the Mother Hips were first to the party years ago, forging country-tinged, soulful sounding Americana before it was a thing. Lately, the band has adopted it’s own moniker for the particular genre-mash they’ve concocted: California Soul.
It’s a mostly apt descriptor on Behind Beyond, certainly in the “California” part of the equation. So much of Behind Beyond forms an unmistakable tendril connecting them to their California forebearers. The most obvious and undeniable is to the easy going mid-‘70s Grateful Dead—the version of the iconic group that had moved beyond feedback drenched acid test space jams and the strictly acoustic renderings of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead to produce their own brand of mythical Americana songs like “Ramble on Rose,” “Jack Straw” and “Tennessee Jed.” Here, the Hips’ “Toughy” recalls those days with a light touch that provides a hint of homage without approaching aping.
They delve into other sunny day penchants, too. On Loiacono’s “Best Friend In Town,” the lush harmonies, languorous guitar solos and sweetly sentimental lyrics recall the heyday of Laurel Canyon grooviness. Similarly with rollicking “Rose of Rainbows” as its jubilant refrain about rainbows, “gentle creatures” and “joyful teardrops” comes across as a paean to the nature-loving hippiedom of the titular character, replete with delicately intricate and melodically pleasing guitar lines that interweave in bucolic wonder. The pedal steel swath of the title track recalls Burrito Brothers and New Riders, and so on.
But it’s not all sun-dappled, hippy-dippy good vibes. In the otherwise brooding “Jefferson Army,” the Hips insert a twin-guitar assault that reeks of crushed metal and militaristic march that conjures the mayhem and heat of a battle. It’s one of the album’s lyrical triumphs too, an evocative narrative tale of revolutionary fighters in a fact-based but mythologized secessionist movement. The movement for the establishment of the state of Jefferson—an area of northern coastal California and southern Oregon—was a real movement in the 1940s and in Bluhm’s version is ongoing, as generations train their families to revolt. It’s a nice piece of craftsmanship that veils a take on modern state of political affairs.
Elsewhere, they grapple with heavy issues too, the California soul being a complex mechanism not easily characterized by sunny days and fast cars. The existential pondering of “Man of Not Man” speaks of drinking the blood of “ancient ones” in a dream-induced fever, before building into a cathartic burst. The dark, foreboding “Shape The Bell” morphs into a sing-songy bounce, obscuring the “twisted corpse of dawn” in a psychedelic dilemma. The Beach Boys, it ain’t.
Throughout the eleven tracks of Behind Beyond the Hips manage to sing sweetly and rock hardy, weaving roaring guitars with easy breezy pedal steel and make it all rock. That is to say The Mother Hips are a fully formed and complexly designed rock band, a long way from that dorm room, and living vibrantly with all the intricacies of their history bearing fruit in mature, multifaceted songwriting and inventive and accomplished structures. The title song touches on years past, regret, and the importance of inward harmony to soldier on. Bluhm sings, “My how the years roll by and they pick up speed/Like mountain roads and many months away from home” and the dream-like refrain of “I’m alive!” repeats until it the guitars drift away, until next time.