Posts Tagged ‘Americana’

48261_301408206640767_665255221_o*Recently I was asked to write a new bio for a musician friend whose music I have long admired. This is the bio that I sent to him. The entire post below didn’t make it though the editing process, so rather than leave hard-thought words flailing on the cutting room floor, I am posting the bio here. The final version can be found at Billy’s website, billyshaddox.com.

Billy Shaddox is blessed with the ability to blend the Western dualities of coastal dreamer and high mountain drifter into his deep, easy flowing songs.

Rooted in stories of love and fortune lost, perspective and enlightenment gained, Shaddox captures the mystique of the West with indelible lyrical imagery and sharply original musicality: the displaced modern man weary of coping with vanishing ideals, the present-minded realist, the uncontrollable jealousy of the downtrodden miner, and the bright-eyed morning traveler setting out to make his mark on the world.

The characters who inhabit Shaddox’s tunesy tales have a depth of personality and situational believability that leaves the listener feeling affected by their being long after their songs have woven their course.

Golden Fate, Shaddox’s newest record, builds on a strong decade of songwriting and musical performance that has now seen two solo records that easily fit into the Americana genre, along with four releases by his powerful, unheralded San Diego-based country-rock band Billy Midnight.

The record is generously layered with Shaddox’s signature lonesome Telecaster twang, picture perfect acoustic guitar and banjo work, and the soulful wail of his homemade lap steel. The lyrics are neck hair bristling at times, captivatingly laced with references to the wondrous powers of nature and destiny, the joys and travails of living simply, and the introspective importance of home and family. It is one of those rare records that, without being over ambitious in an effort to, seems to eerily match the listeners life circumstances in subtle ways that are revealed deep into multiple listening sessions.

Bouncy and evocative like the best Woody Guthrie dustbowl gospels at times, dark and forlorn in Cashesque grandeur at others, Golden Fate verily demands for to be taken out on a long, thoughtful desert drive where it should be played through barely adequate speakers that compete with the crackling of a sage and juniper campfire, echoing on and on off of steep canyon walls.

Corby Anderson

Emma, Colorado

January 4, 2013


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The Story That Will Never Be Told (Until Now)

By Corby Anderson

It was another soggy Friday in December. I was preparing to leave town in a whisking rush to see a holiday concert in San Francisco when I fielded a call from my editor at the Monterey County Weekly, the effervescent, speed-talking food critic Mark Anderson. We chatted briefly about the paper and my undulating employment status. Being broke at the holidays for the second year in a row had me scrambling for any work that I could drum up, and I had sent an email earlier in the week requesting to be “sicked” on any story that Mark might have for me to work on.

For much of 2010, right up until being laid off at Thanksgiving (specifically, the day after the holiday, and more specifically, the first minute of the first working day after the holiday) I had been locked down and unavailable for reportage due to the demanding hours that were required for my job as a video producer for a small marketing firm in the Central Valley mission town of San Juan Bautista.

But now, after the craptastic excising of my salaried position a few weeks earlier – a situation that left me with just the years accumulated vacation hours (which weren’t much, really, being in my virginal year there) as a razor-thin buffer separating my normal  check-to-check existence from the screeching, thrashing approach of the specter of total financial oblivion – I was literally desperate with want and worry to find any form of income that I could summon up legally, and even that was a questionable standard when studied through the lens of a particularly brain-torching arrangement of potential economic pressures facing me going into the New Year.

After some pat discussion of the upcoming holidays, business was gotten to and I was assigned a vaguely defined personality piece for the coming weeks paper, due Monday. “Go out to Spreckles by the post office and find the store with the cranky old German lady. Write something interesting about her.  I’m told that she’s something else – like the Soup Nazi of Salinas.” Anderson directed, using an unfortunate, but possibly intentionally placed association that made me somewhat nervous.

It was almost four by the time that he called, and with no time left in the day to do the proper research and scouting mission on a Friday (in hindsight, to be fair, I could have easily done a few Google inquiries to find where out the Spreckles Post Office was, made a call there and ask whether there were any angry Nazi’s with stores next door – and if so, to tell me what it was called so that I could look it up and call there to see if the Fraulein there would speak to me, which is what I eventually did anyways), I set my sights on the following day, when I would be returning from San Francisco sometime in the afternoon.

Of course, Saturday got chewed up by our hung over getaway from the City after a rather spectacular, late night of booze and semi-fine cuisine, a powerful, sweet brand of California rock and roll, and the requisitely messy post-festivity festivities. And of course then there was the slow, rain soaked drive home to the Monterey Bay through a persistently oppressive storm, followed by the hurried preparations for the Redhead’s work holiday party that evening. Out of necessity, I punted the Weekly story to Sunday, the Christian day of repentance, home improvement projects, football (or if in a ski town, TiVo and a full day’s ripping) and rest.

On Sunday, I took an afternoon drive out to the old sugar company town of Spreckles. I drove slowly from my still inundated home through the muddy dunes of Marina, flattened and paved over by the Army as if it was one big, twenty square mile wide depot (which it was). But any sand dune worth its shifty weight in fine china has a funny way of imposing itself, even when seemingly smothered by progress, and Marina sand is some of the finest in the world for glass-blowing. From every exposed inch of sandy roadside shoulder or sagebrush-studded bike trail that was spared the pavers whimsy, a fountain of molten dune poured onto the road, spreading in lumpy beige rivulets across the cracked grey skin of Reservation Road, the country road that splits what is left of the natural elevation of the dunes, skirting the old Army base as it leads eastward, and spilling down and out onto the strawberry and lettuce fields of Southern Salinas, and Spreckles, it’s semi-famous, nearly defunct sub-hamlet.


Spreckles is hardly a town at all, at least not in the hearts and minds of the mapmakers at the Garmin corporation, makers of the fine navigational device that sits atop the dashboard of my Land Cruiser, affixed to a plastic hip bone-like swivel that sticks up above a fancy sandbag, and which somehow pinpoints my exact location, speed of travel, the nearest bank machine, and my expected date of ultimate demise by beaming an invisible laser down to me and back up to a network of orbiting space birds.

To those guys, Spreckles is but a tree-lined backwater vegetable patch outside of Salinas, and any mention of the existence of the place has been summarily expunged from their official version of navigational reality.

But to local historians, and about 500 or so hearty Sprecklites, it is a very real, very important place. It is the once-bustling home of the aptly named Spreckles Sugar Company –  a town named after it’s founder Claus Spreckles, and built – even trucked in a half-home at a time by rail and steam-tractor –  specifically to house the many confectionaries that milled the sugar beets into sweet dust at what was, upon its erection, the biggest sugar plant in the world. It’s glory lasted for almost a hundred years.

A third of the way through its millennia, John Steinbeck’ s father, John Sr., worked as a plant manager there, and arranged for summer jobs for his son working there as a handyman and as a bench chemist. It was during his time living and working in Spreckles that Steinbeck gleaned many of the quirky characters that populated his wonderfully illustrative novel Tortilla Flats. A few decades later, the town is also where the film version of his more famous tome, East of Eden was filmed.

The massive sugar factory officially ceased its operations in 1982 after a series of corporate maneuvers that refocused American sugar beet operations in Hawaii, and appropriately, to Sugar Land, Texas. The hulking silos still soar over the surrounding croplands, their white paint now doused with a drizzling coat of rust and moss.

Now the town has a distinctly ghostly feel to it. I drove around looking for the post office, which was not too hard to find. Its one of about five businesses on the main strip. I parked and scouted the store next door. After a minute of so studying its exterior charm, I decided that it must be the home of my assignment.

As it happened, the store was closed. Probably because it was Sunday, though there was no sign that listed operating hours posted. I walked it’s vintage Americana, time stuck exterior, relishing the flaking white chunks of paint on the Coke mural (“Better with Coke!” it exclaimed) that covered a dozen yards in either direction of weathered bricks. I gandered at the two-bladed steel fan that hung ominously above entryway, eyeballed the unusual hoop steelwork of the stanchions that supported the overhanging eaves and took note of the multiple pieces of paper stuck to the wall by the door, all of them proclaiming this or that to be illegal on the premises.

Skateboards, hats, bare chests, naked feet, food or drink from outside sources, masks (?!) – all banned, and judging by the inflection ingrained in their handwriting, and the haphazard arrangement of the rules, vigorously so. I peered in the windows but could not make out much through the haze of their dusty patina, other than what looked to be the interior of a lunch counter that looked to be straight out of the late 1940’s.

Gathering as detailed an impression as I could without the aide of an actual camera (smashed to pieces in an errant handoff to the wife), or an iPhone with onboard camera (stolen from the sullied depths of my smelly left basketball sneaker at the Monterey Sports Center), or even a voice recorder, which I normally kept with me for verbal notes, when I wasn’t busy habitually losing them in the aftermath of drunken bike wrecks or sunset beach hikes – I left, planning to return on Monday, when the working world renewed itself.


With an expectant email from my editor glaring at me when I awoke on Monday morning, I set about to do some research. There was no sense in driving all of the way out there if the store was closed again. So, I fired up the Google machine, did a little digital snooping, and found out that the place is called the Spreckles Emporium. I turned up a number and gave it a call.

Holding true to her predicted mean streak, I was hung up on by a very Germanic sounding lady quite abruptly, twice. The second hang up occurred when I was trying to explain that I just wanted to see if she was open, to which she blurted “I WOULDN’T ANSWER THE PHONE IF I WASN’T OPEN!” click.

Fair enough. Warming to the challenge, I drove the dozen miles through varying plats of winter-dormant agricultural lands at lunchtime. On the way, I texted Anderson. That is 1 miserable, wicked bitchshes already hung up on me 2x, I typed. He responded almost immediately, with a curious enthusiasm that made me wonder if I was not being set up. The old Send-the-freelancer-out-to-spar-with-the-Wicked-Witch-of-the-Lettuce-Patch routine. Awesome! Sure. Why not? Describe away, he continued.

I pulled up to the store and found a spot that was not flooded by an overwhelmed gutter. It was miserably cold and raining in a weird, fine mist, but I decided to have a look around outside again, before going inside.

It just so happens that I had chosen that day to start smoking for the first time in my life. And by that I mean to really start a new habit, a conscious decision to make the act of smoking a regular occurrence in my daily menu of vices. Sure, I’d had cigarettes before, but for whatever reason, and probably relating to some very stern, deeply felt direction to never smoke that I’d received from my brother at about age 12, when he was a veteran smoker with a terrific aptitude for the job at the age of 15, I’d never actually committed to the practice. Over the years at one time or the other, I’d tried all manner of pipes, cigars, cigarillos, and cloves before, but nothing ever stuck, and his fierce words spoken in the backyard of our parents house in the suburbs of the East Bay of Northern California had their way of cropping up in a timely fashion and extinguishing any pleasure that I might take from any of those acts of tobacco.

So, perhaps as a convenient loophole to circumnavigating the actual wording of my brothers law, for most of 24 years, my thing has been chewing tobacco – either Skoal or Copenhagen. But now, with the quarter century mark of lip bound imbibement approaching – and all of the guilt and worry associated with reaching that sort of landmark along with it, I felt more than ready to kick the proverbial (and literal) can to the curb. So, there on the corner of Spreckles and Halton Avenues, on a Monday afternoon near the end of my 38th human year, I drew my Djeep lighter, peeled off the protective plastic covering, snaked a fresh stogie out of the fresh pack, and sparked up a Salem.

Just then I got another text from Mark Anderson. Call me, it read. I hit send and the phone connected itself to his own. “Look,” he said. “I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about this story. All of that crankiness that she’s displayed is a good thing. It’s what makes her interesting. It’s her thing. Find out what makes her that way. It’ll be fun,” he added. “But don’t go in there and announce that you are doing a story on her for the paper. Strike up a random conversation and get her to open up to you,” he added, further instructing me to go in, order up something to eat, and observe.

“Get anything you want, within reason. Bill the paper,” he concluded.

I conscientiously extinguished the gross-tasting cigarette, and not seeing an ash can on the street, I pocketed the crumpled remnants of the butt and pulled on the rusty bronze handle of the green wood and mesh screened front door of the Spreckles Emporium. The rusty spring emitted a great sproinging groan that filled the silence of the empty street.


Inside, a stooped woman of about 70 stood at  eye level with the counter that she manned. Her colorful face was compact and stern, like a small granite gravestone. A pair of impressively thick, salt and pepper eyebrows dissected her forehead, and set themselves at an angle that seemed in opposition to my presence. I said a casual hello as I walked between the aging clerk and another woman, this one younger by perhaps a dozen years. She stood leaning with her back to an unpolished chrome railing that separated the check out are from a series of shelves that had nothing on them. They each nodded slightly, but mostly just stared at me as I passed. I could feel the intensity of their glares through the back of my otherwise impervious raincoat.

I slowly strolled the aisles of the store, soaking in the museum like atmosphere. Its layout was that of a small country grocery, with maybe four or five short aisles and a perimeter of upright cold storage containers. On the walls were a fascinating collection of vintage product signs. There were Hamms beer signs, obsolete diet soda signs and the like encircling the perimeter walls. At first glance, it was difficult to ascertain whether the signs were purposefully placed as a vintage theme, or whether they were simply left hanging because they were what advertising had been provided and there had been no new signs to replace them over the past 30 years.

I continued my stroll around the store when I became mindful of Anderson’s instructions to order something to eat. But as best that I could tell, there was no actual food in the grocery store, at least none that looked unexpired. Glancing over at the counter that the German stood behind, I could see that there was no sandwich making operation, and the coolers were all either empty or held a few plastic, modern bottles of various sodas and a few containers of beer.

For the most part, the shelves along the aisles were almost entirely vacant save for a few randomly dispersed cans of dusty marshmallow spread, a mostly vacant rack of ancient packages of buttons for sewing, an aged rack of obligatory steel-lidded jars of Clabber Girl baking soda, some very old one pound packages of sugar, which I thought fitting. Though, on closer inspection none bore the name of the towns founder.

The whole joint was a marvel of curiosity, lost in time, as if a bomb had gone off and left the place standing, only to be stripped of anything really edible by bandits and vandals, and then left alone to gather dust for a half century. I was stricken with the notion that with all of the vintage coolers, shelving units, sofa fountain and deli machinery that the place would make for a perfect movie location, and shameful at not having seen the film that most represents my home turf in a long time, made a note to ask the proprietress whether East of Eden had actually filmed in the store

Along the rails were some more random items, remarkably few in number, hardly enough product at all to qualify as an actual store. Ironic, I thought, reflecting on the name of the place: Spreckles Emporium. The definition of “emporium” is that of a large retail store with many, varying items. Yet here I was, standing in an emporium that was not, set in a town that was no more.

But every time that the notion entered my mind that I was walking through a museum, I would feel a stinging sensation digging at the back of my head, reminding me of the owners glare, and of the fact that she wasn’t selling novelty tickets, and judging by her lack of wares and her rotten disposition, really didn’t seem to want anyone in her space.


As I rounded the corner of the last remaining aisle, I pondered the questions roaring through my mind. Why were there no product on the shelves? Why is the store even open? Who shops here?

There was nothing left to study. I would have to approach the birds, who were by now speaking rather animatedly with each other, albeit in the hushed, secretive tones known only these days to older generations. It was a sound that I cling to – an auditory relic that never fails to instantly connect me back to the summer kitchen of my grandmother and all of her sisters, gossiping, relating, whispering the secrets that have fallen from my fruitful family tree like so many soft peaches.

The banter between the two ladies seemed to focus on the larger of two admirably prodigious sailfish that hung on the far wall, and the story of how the Emporium’s owner had caught the fish in Mexico years back.

I approached. The two eyed me conspicuously, so I walked over to introduce myself, mindful of the editors suggestion that I chat the owner up without pegging myself as a journalist wanting to do a story about her for the paper. Remembering to make unrelenting eye contact until a greeting had been properly made, a trick that I was taught by a writer who was renowned for the quality of his reportage, but also for being a drug addled recluse, I went to shake the hand of the woman who was not my story target. But interestingly, as I moved towards her, she recoiled from my outstretched hand, nodding meekly towards the owner. I could see that the taller one who I was trying to introduce myself to was nibbling on some candy, so in recovering from the odd rejection, I mentioned the candy. “I see you’ve got your hands full,” was all that I could think of.

I spun slowly to face the Emporiums owner, steeling myself for yet more weird vibrations, and just before my eyes caught her own, a loud bleating rang out from my pocket. Damn! My cell phone. I’d forgotten to turn it off after my call from Anderson the editor.

The timing could not have been worse. The two women looked at each other with startled, widening eyes. Everything in the room jolted into a slow freeze. The effect was almost sacrilegious. A foreign sound in an old world. It was as if I’d suddenly entered the OK Corral wielding a light saber. The phone rang it’s awkward chime once more, and now my mind drifted. The electronic chime echoed out of my pocket, up into the old rafters, off of the steel beer signs, down each malnourished aisle of food stuffs, and back to my brain in an instant. I wondered if perhaps somehow my phone was the first cell phone to ever sully the hallowed halls of the Emporium? Surely there would have been a sign preventing their presence if the owner had even an inkling of an idea how annoying the devices had become to modern society.

My apoplectic spell snapped on the fourth ring. Time whipped back into normal operating speed. Trying to maintain eye contact while not look panicked, I pounded my left front pocket like a man whose pants were on fire, smacking myself about the hip until the noise ceased to exist. The German’s dark brow pinched in towards the bridge of her nose, and a frown spread through the creases of her face like wall of wind through a field of wheat. “Sorry about that…They don’t let me turn it off. Regulations, you see…” I managed to blurt.

“Zere are no phones allowed in ziss store,” she replied, pointing towards the door. I followed her finger towards the green door.

“Oh? I didn’t see the sign,” I replied, attempting to hold my ground, while remaining cordial.


“Well, how was I to know, then? Apologies…Here, I’ll turn it off. They wont miss me for a little while,” I said, fishing the blasted thing out of my pocket and hammering on the red on/off button until it emitted the pleasantly blittering knell of its forced demise. The screen went blank, and I showed it to the owner. “See, its off. Again, apologies.”

“Do you live here in Spreckles?” asked the younger woman. I recognized a sizable portion of sarcasm in her voice.

“No. I live over the dune, in Marina.”

“What are you doing here then?” she replied, almost instantaneously.


My mind flashed back to Mark Anderson’s instructions to not just come out and reveal that I am a reporter working on a story. But then it overshot that quick mental signpost and barreled forth, ever inward. What was I doing there? The answers rushed in on my synapses like a mental meteor shower:

Plenty: I was on assignment, writing a story. Pretending to know what I was doing. Impersonating a reporter. Trying to earn a hundred and eight dollars, fifty cents to put towards my wife’s Christmas gift. Researching. Wishing that I knew more about vintage signs. Washed out of Aspen, Colorado. Recouping my mo jo. Plotting my comeback. Readying myself for the unknown. Keeping my mind off of the terrors of the season. Trying to learn about this funky store. Enduring an almost unbearable dose of ruditee.  All of it at once.

“I’m interested in history,” I replied, figuring that it might stand up better than the litany that my mind had conjured on her prompting. “I was told that your store held quite a bit of it in its beams.” The two nodded at my answer. It seemed to me like this conversation had occurred before, only without me in it. How I knew that, I do not know or understand, for it was not a premonition, just a sense that I was subconsciously following some sort of predestined script.

My words had a calming effect in some regards. For a second I thought that I could see the hackles on their backs ease a tad. I was pleased that some of the tension had been dissolved. It had been nearly too much for me to bear. These had been, after all, not the type of hostile working conditions that I was perfectly situated for.

But then my pride and sense of purpose betrayed me. “And I’m a writer…” I felt myself groaning internally, but I was unable to stop.

“…I write for the Monterey County Weekly. In Monterey. It’s a newspaper. A weekly. I write for it. That’s what I do.” The two women looked at me disgustedly, as if I was a drunken pauper digging my own grave; a worthless waste of worm habitat. I stopped there, pinching off the rest of my spiel before it poured out of my head.

Her German face turned a bitter red. Her eyes narrowed and a palpable, fierce resistance overcame her being. “Well, don’t you go and write no story ‘bout zis store!”

My cover was blown. I had a sudden, itching urge for a cigarette. And a chew. “Well, that’s not why I’m here,” I lied.

She persisted, gathering steam now. “…cause zen zere’ll be people reading it and coming in here all zee time and I don’t nee dat!”

My curiousity was peaking now. Why would she not want business? I asked as much.

“Look around! Are you blind? I ‘ave nozing to zell!”

“So, you don’t sell sandwiches? Or soup? I’d heard that you did,”

“No! Not for a long time.” she spat.

“Well, why not then?”

“Becauze zere are no more wholezellers to zell to little stores like zis one. I can’t get anything to zell in ‘ere.”

“But what about Costco, in Seaside? Can’t you get good deals there?” I asked. Was not that what the original purpose of the big box bulk item-pushers was? Surely it wasn’t to sell coffins and eyeglasses, tires and $1 hot dogs. That had to have just come as an opportune byproduct of its first purpose: to outfit mom and pop stores exactly like the Emporium with cartons and crates of bric a brac that they could then turn a tidy profit on.

“Zat iz exactly right!” she exclaimed loudly, confusing me. “We little people ‘ave been pushed out! So, I don’t ‘ave nottin to zell.”

“So you are saying that you have a store, but nothing to sell? Why do you bother? Surely there is something else that you’d rather be doing with your time,” I braved.

“I already told you! Becauze zis is my store!” the proprietor exclaimed with a practiced ire. I half expected her to fly over the counter and snatch me up by the earlobe to lead me out.

When she stopped talking, there was an uncomfortable pause. I looked around again. Clearly the woman was a relic in her own right. I could see now that she was elementally just the same as the old cans that sat lonely on her shelves. They weren’t her products, they were her friends. They were her comfort and her countenance. She was but another beam in the rafters, another fixture on the gables, another sailfish on the wall. They’d have to pry the mean bitch out of the Emporium if they wanted her to quit coming. Or carry her out, which was more likely.

“Alright. I get it,” I said to nobody, looking around with new eyes.

“And don’t you dare go write any newspaper stories about Gerte. Like she told you,” the woman behind me said pointedly. “I mean it. We’ve got a small town here, but we are loyal to her, she’s been through a lot over the years.”


I took a deep breath. I could feel my breath shortening. Maybe it was all the dust. “Well, obviously I won’t do that,” I said after gathering myself. “But I’ve gotta say. Your hospitality could use a little work. But, I appreciate your time. Interesting place you’ve got here. It would make a great movie set. Or a museum…Good luck to the both of you,” I said, taking my leave.

I paused just beyond the threshold of the old, creaking swing door. I could hear a low grumbling noise behind me. I watched briefly the runoff that was pouring from the face of the awning on the sidewalk. I looked down the street, first to my left, the west, and then to the east. Nothing moved but the drizzling rain and the barely perceptible, grey mini-clouds that hustled about within the mother cloud that crowded the dark afternoon sky. The great white and chestnut colored towers of the abandoned sugar mill across the street glistened mutedly in their rusting state. Two birds sang an old song behind me in the distance.

I looked down at my hand and saw that I was holding a pack of cigarettes in my left. I hadn’t even realized that I’d reached for the pack in my pocket. My, how our habits come at us so. I was reaching into the pack when an object down on the concrete caught my eye. It was a penny. I bent over, mindful of the needling pain that had been jabbing at my right patella for a few months now, and picked the penny up. I am profoundly superstitious. The coin was old and worn almost flat of profile, with hardly a speck of shine left on either of its surfaces. Abe Lincoln sat there, perpetually unperturbed by his fate, staring perpetually to the right. To his left a single word: Liberty. Above him, the old national motto: In God We Trust, (but whose, I’ve wondered.) And then, down below the Great Emancipator, and shifted slightly to the right, a number, a year engraved in its marrow:


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Mother Hips release their seventh record, Pacific Dust.
By Corby Anderson

I have before me a new record, recently released by my favorite band. This review will serve as a streaming journal of my thoughts recorded upon the First Spin. All subsequent spins, or listens, as it were (does a digital file spin, per se?), will forever be offset by the virginal experience.

Like original sex with a human being who is kind, drunk, or horny (or all three) enough to give your own body a randy go at their own – and ultimately for good, bad or otherwise – that first listen to a piece of music is always the one that lodges itself firmly into your memory mud, a road sign from which all future mental mapping of the work finds its bearing.

This record is called Pacific Dust, and it is by the Mother Hips, a Northern California-based band that I have spent most of my adult life listening to, following around (in what might be considered a stalkerish manner by lesser entertainers), and generally blathering on about in every possible communicative way that a pseudo-mediaite can muster. It is their second record released since their return to the footlights in 2004 following a short hiatus, which at one time threatened to last an indefinite time. Such is the nature of hiatuses, work, war and love.

The record before this, Kiss the Crystal Flake, was essentially a game-changing record for the band. The seventh song, TGIM, literally convinced me to quit my job of eight years and move to Monterey, California to be a writer. That I did this on the verge of the direst economic atmosphere seen since the days when a family car cost .17 cents is not really my concern. If I’ve learned anything from the experience, its that you can’t argue with fate.

It was said long ago, and remains true to this day, that there is something preternaturally synchronous about the song writing that the Mother Hips offer to those who orbit within draw of their gravity.

What was said exactly was that the Mother Hips “write the soundtrack to our lives”, and, well, in my case its fucking true, actually. I know, I know. Plenty of people can say the same about their favorite bands, legitimately so. That is art, of course. However, speaking directly of the band whose latest record I am about to partake in for this seminal time, all that I know is there are too many instances of lyrics, moods, and tones fitting perfectly the unfolding events of my life. Breakups, makeup’s, chance meetings, road trips, work, philosophy – they have almost all been eased and understood at some point thanks to an eerie lyric, an otherwise comically coincidental timing.

I would point out that this is the seventh record released officially by the Hips.

1. Back to the Grotto
2. Part Timer Goes Full
3. Shootout
4. Later Days
5. Green Hills of Earth
6. Kiss the Crystal Flake
7. Pacific Dust.

I was once an athlete. Will be someday once more, when the knees mend and the waist wastes. But that is another story. Suffice to say, my personal number in baseball, softball, basketball, and professional mushroom collecting, were there such an event, is seven. It is my karmic sign – the symbol that most defines my life. I was born on 1/7/72. I was married on 7/7/07, and at that wedding, we drank 777 Seven & 7’s. I’m just saying.

On a side note: A man possibly named Jose Garcia JUST called and in let on that he may actually rent my house in Colorado. This is of note in that this empty, plan-sinking house has been lingering like a rotten fish in my life for at least two months. If it goes on much longer, we’ll have to redirect the Good Ship Wildhair and head back to Colorado abruptly, arriving with wet tails between our legs. Strange timing, given that I’ve just gone 47 increasingly concerning days without a phone call on this matter. We go from rightside up to upside down and back so quickly these days.

I received a package this afternoon from the record label. In it were this little heavenly chunk of gold and silver CD and a few 11×17 posters with the record cover emblazoned smartly on them. I am one of the lucky few getting an early listen, thanks to winning a contest to host a listening party here in Carmel. I won’t be the first to say it, and in fact I usually mock those who do, but in this case it is true: I never win anything, not even contests rigged by me for nobody but me to actually win. Once I ran a harmless ring of fraud in which I used my status as a 17 year old radio station “sports director” to get a local drag strip to fork over some free passes for something called the “Winternational”. (FRIDAY FRIDAY FRIDAY! – God those were fun commercials to make) Of course, when I showed up at the gates with my nearly identical 19 year old brother as my “grand prize winner” it didn’t take long for the race track staff to figure out that, as MJ would say, “scamonee”.

Later in life, I got a free ticket to go ski Steamboat Ski area from the Aspen Ski Company, who I worked for “loading ass for the Man” as a lift operator. Somehow, in all my charms, I parlayed that one free ticket into a blown meniscus, a massive hospital bill, an arrest for theft of service or some such trumped up charge, a good healthy firing from a job that same brother put his ass on the line for, a two year banning from skiing the mountain by the president of the company, a sudden move to Los Angeles, an awkward move in with a girl whose first instinct upon my arrival was to immediately scram for the hills of Kentucky, an unfinished novel and other anomalies of fate.

The record cover itself is a fantastically snappy, nostalgic painting of a Carmel-like sunset cocktail party. I believe that I won the listening party contest because I proposed to recreate the record cover with my own party (mustaches and all), which I intend to do on Friday the 23rd of October at Carmel Beach.

But back to the record, which I will now, at long last, actually play!

Song one is the bombastic, mesmerizing White Falcon Fuzz. I’ve heard the song already, thanks to a sneak preview, and have had many great moments to date soaking in the atmosphere of The Fuzz. The song is different lyrically, in that it’s writer, Tim Bluhm, packs twice as many words into the lines as one might be used to hearing in a song.

But what words! “I don’t know what the penalty is for thinking you can do what’s left of what’s never been done. And if I never find out its either cause I did it or I tried and I failed, said forget it and walked into the sun.” All of that in 16 seconds, backed by a sweet picking Byrdsian riff with a meaty, hooking walkup to the chorus, which in typical Hips fashion is quite a departure from the rest of the song. Time change is both the musical and philosophical identifying mark of this band, and here they hit both marks. With Kiss the Crystal Flake, the band saw their first commercial distribution on a widescale basis thanks to the inclusion of a few of their songs on the game Rock Star. White Falcon Fuzz seems perfectly written for such a thing, with the added bonus that it’s lyrics will likely force the curious teens to look up words like “thus” and “transfigured”, which is never a bad thing.

Early on, Bluhm sings of waking up late at night to write a song, and thinking he sees a dark figure in his house. As his wife sleeps nearby, he writes while fighting a battle with this dark figure using a sharp pencil for a weapon in the 5th dimension. I am not sure what the 5th dimension is, other than the R&B group who somehow recorded the hippy anthem “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”. I have trouble enough with the three dimensions that I operate in. But this simple line is enough to set the theme for the whole record. In Kiss the Crystal Flake the enduring first line was about a mission being undertaken, about time and its importance. The theme of time is what defined that record.

I am guessing that this fifth dimension, this fight to write it all down before the dreams overwhelm the original thought, and the ultimate musical application of that thought will course through this record.

Third Floor Story is track two, historically the “hit” spot on a record. It is an older song that has finally found a place on a record, and justifiably so. A real juking bit of California funk and soul, this song is one of the easiest songs to dance to from a band that offers some seriously danceable tunes.

Third Floor Story is a rollicking song which seems a frontal assault on the record industry, a business that for years has failed this historically important, influential rock and roll band. One stanza directly addressed this conundrum, as well as hinting at the long past influence of drugs on the band. “The company quit/they didn’t do shit for our new record/What do I have to do to get a break, won’t someone just give me a hit?/Oh I feel better already…” Later, the tempo chills significantly for the lines “I have a heart that is older than you/I’m a soldier and I’m hurt, its true/So many times I have tried to brush it off, but your sharpened wit nearly ran me through” This followed by a nasty toned lick and the pleading, honest chorus, and capped by the decaying disharmonious breakdown tones of the songs fade out.

Jess Oxox is up next. It is the first song that I have never heard before this typing. I always wondered what Oxox actually meant. Is it an acronym, or a stand-alone word? At any rate, to me the word harkens back to eight grade Valentines Day cards and comments written in high school yearbooks. To this point, the only instance of Oxox being written on my behalf was an anonymous red lip sticking of my driver side window in the parking lot of my old school.

The song has that other hallmark of the Hips sound – a steady, driving guitar rhythm, less fuzzed-out but still similar to those which have made Weezer so famous. Now I am starting to see the production value of this record for what it seems to be: outstandingly produced, tight, poppy, out front like a great sip of wine. I am no oenophile, but I am thinking that this song is going to go over well with the wine crowd. Soft harmonies are layered in over mellow leads, driven along by that signature drive. I sense hints of 1970’s pop bands like Seals and Croft and Wings in the fabric, pushed by sentimental lyrics of a possibly unrequited or doomed springtime love story. “My bandages were fresh and clean, they had just been replaced/my blood was in my veins where they belonged.” Near the end, Bluhm sings of having to leave Jess, like a dream, perhaps as a nod to the vagabonding life of music and it’s needy mistress, the road.

The fourth track, Lion and the Bull, starts out as a five beat, clap slapping anthem, similar to what Foghat would sound like if played through a cloud of helium. For some reason, I immediately think of the 1988 Oakland A’s baseball team, the one that lost to the damned Dodgers in that October’s World Series thanks in part to gimp-hero Kurt Gibson’s clenched fist, pinch hit homerun. Fuck the Dodgers.

This is a “Greg Song”, the first of the record, best as I can tell. Greg Songs are notable in that he usually sings alone until the chorus, which tend to be coated in the sweet harmonies that Blumn and Loiacono have mastered, but also in that the subject matter of his songs tend towards the mystical. Not always, but at times. The theme of this song is had to ascertain upon first listen. “I aim low, with my horns right through your soul/I know I’m slow/so stubborn and slow.”

Lion and the Bull seems like it might be about a relationship – ruminating on the give and take that occurs within, and about what the next step might be. Those who subscribe to Wilco fanzines will absolutely love this song; it has that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot urban snap to it.

The Mother Hips, backstage. Photo by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips, backstage. Photo by Andrew Quist

One Way Out starts out by painting a frustrating road scene. Broke down for the first time, a long way from the next town. Blumn sings in his honey-toned vibrato as the guitars jangle along in a poppy rock meter. As with many Hips songs, to their credit, one hears elements of long forgotten riffs. Here a George Harrison high pitched slide, there a Joe Walsh walk down, perhaps a slack guitar note from Don Ho thrown in as an accent. There is one way out. I am not sure what it is, or if it ever gets decided on, but that is for future study, and another reason that I love to listen to this band. Earlier I mentioned that their songs have served as a sort of songbook for my life, and something tells me that this song will eventually hit me at exactly the right time, giving some comfort when one of life’s inevitable breakdowns occur.

All In Favor goes sixth on Pacific Dust. It starts slow and mellow with a simple campfire strum and an easygoing lead working together. This song is a tune ostentatiously about the democratic process of making music, methinks, and serves in a way as a lovely sentimental self-portrait. “So we got ourselves a van/took it all across the land/ till one day on five we caught on fire/yeah, just like our egos/we took a vote and raised our hands up high/we’ll do this till we die/all in favor, say aye.”

Whoa. A direct rip at some unknown ski resort is thrown in, and throws me slightly off. I can relate, having spent a decade in one of those, struggling every day to remain as the bulldozers ate away at the native ground surrounding the resorts. The Hips once made a habit of touring the Rocky Mountain ski areas in a whirlwind string of blazing rock shows. It was in one of these that I saw my first mosh pit break out at a Hips show, which, if you know the band, is sort of comical. Note to self: Find out which obnoxious ski resort Greg had in mind when penning this beautiful balladic number. My guess, selfishly, is Vail. God I hope its Vail. Fuck Vail. Really….

And now for an upping of the previous dose of WHOA, interjected only after a second listen whilst on a mid-review, 10 pm run out to an abandoned military base where I was going to meet up with some amateur exorcists in an effort to walk through long-darkened barracks in search of “hostile demons” for a story that I am writing. Halfway there, the college kids who called me chickened out of having me on hand to chronicle their exploits, a bad sign for those dealing with much harsher demons than that of the local entertainment press, I proffer, as I roll back to the beachside abode and refocus on the task at hand.

The second WHOA moment that I speak of here is not even about the above tangent, however. No, this is about a lyric that I plucked from All In Favor in mid-drive home. There are several characters listed in the course of the song, strange sounding dudes whom a casual listener might think perhaps are just imaginative creations meant to fit the song. But there it is, near the end of All In Favor. Along with “Spider John”, “Pistol Pete” is lyrically named, presumably as a source of nostalgia, and I fucking know Pistol Pete, like far too well! I lived with that cat for two years in a dingy hovel populated by large dogs, baseball players, free-range chickens and various reoccurring personalities of indeterminate criminal status. In fact I have Pistol Pete to thank for introducing me to the band, as well as teaching me how to play guitar. When the wind is right, I can still hear Pete slurring out an affected, angry plea to “play some Stones!” at Hips shows BITD.

He was given the nickname due to his habit of getting trashed and passing out on the band’s Chico porch back in the early 90’s, where he would proceed to forego direct control over his waterworks from time to time to time. I last saw him a year ago participating in a professional whiffle ball game in Pleasanton, and he had not changed a bit. That dude will flip the hell out if her hears this.

And now the seventh song of the seventh record, the title track, Pacific Dust. Starting in space, Pacific Dust, the song, gathers itself gradually, reveals itself initially in tone to be the blood-sister song to Bluhm’s Cow Hollow Blues from his epic solo effort House of Bluhm, until a punching mad trio of synched guitars and Paul Hoaglin’s growling bass drop the karmic hammer, and splattering out in all directions is a surprising cacophony of classic psychedelia, followed by an orderly John Hofer high hat, bass drum place setting. That brief moment of calm gets energetically trumped by a pissed off, resolute-sounding Bluhm urging a deep-toned string of leaving-time explanationaries.

For the past year, the Hips have taken to playing sets specifically inclined towards psychedelic experimentation, and the results have been positively inspiring. This song seems an obvious benefactor of the stripping of the mores of pop/rock or country rock that the band has adhered to for a majority of their history, especially after starting off with a fundamental urge to jam back when they burned their first strings.

Now free once more to improvise, Pacific Dust ranges in mean sweeps and smooth caroms, ultimately feeling like a multi-stage, rocketing space launch.

The chorus of Pacific Dust, the song, comes on like a sudden, swinging, sliding, shirt-tearing, nose smashing street fight. At this point I begin to dance and yell into the otherwise quiet house here on a gloomy day in Monterey. I yell so loud that my old dog, Bear, who is about 95% deaf, bolts up from his rainy day bed and starts howling out of blind allegiance. The cat flies off the bookshelf and takes off in a desperate run for the bed, where he hides underneath, red eyed and worried.

Meanwhile my wife comes running from the kitchen with a piping hot tuna casserole in her mitted hands, a look of concern etched across her face upon entry into my cluttered office. But within seconds of her entry, I’ve got her hopping around with me, rocking out in her apron and pigtails like some Polish hippy chef with a penchant for boogying down with a pile of hot fish meat in hand.

The song has more hooks than a smithy’s tool shed, more changes than the congressional record, more surprises than a Wes Anderson film. It ends in the strangest of fashions, swirling away in a detaching metallic dirge that bends the mind and troubles the air.

And immediately we launch into the pop rock styling of Young Charles Ives. After the lock-step guitars run off a nifty opening riff, this tune takes on a familiar feel. It charges forward at times in the one-two-three syncopation seen before in a pair of older Hips number such as Do it On the Strings, and Tired Wings.

Dressed in prim vocal harmonies, and pressed on at times by guest player Jackie Greene’s light organ work and a moody string bit that suggests a Beatlesesque sensibility, Young Charles Ives is a compelling story song in the strong tradition of Mother Hips story songs. When history turns its narrow beam on this band twenty, fifty, even a hundred years from now, I believe that the lasting characteristic of these musicians will have been their ability to tell intelligent, heartfelt stories of people great and small in such a way that multiple entendres can take the listeners interpretation in a myriad directions.

The Mother Hips, photo by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips, photo by Andrew Quist

Young Charles Ives tells the tale of a father and son finding musical connectivity together, and ultimately the emptiness of going it alone. “He came into the house and yelled “how do they make that sound?”/sat down at the piano and he tried/but the music that he captured, outside above the rain/set his mind a reeling/outside the bells kept dealin’” There is a beautifully quiet, orchestral and guitar jangle interlude that lasts for just a few moments near the end that might just well be one of the most impressive, ambitious moments on the entire record.

(Editors note – this and the following song are the only post-Original Listen edits that I am allowing myself.) Freedom is a regular theme in the bands canon, specifically in Bluhm’s work. The eight track, Are You Free is perhaps the kin of “I Can’t Stay”, an excellent, devastating older Hips tune that never made it onto an album release (it was a b-side on the Third Floor Story single) in which the protagonist was a male voice lamenting a former love who he might have seen on the highway.

Are You Free is a pained, yearnful story that mines a similar vein. I was at first quite harsh in my review of this song, perhaps thrown by two instrumental aspects of Are You Free, the drum tempo and a hammy synth fill. But now, after a few more passes at it, those snitty complaints fade away like distant thunder, and it is due to the deeply philosophical weight of the words that Bluhm sings, or rather asks of his muse – the homemaking wife, the one who may not have lived the whole of her potential. “Julie married up and away she did go/her husband has to work/and she’s often at home/everything that she wished for is right here at home/she stares out of the kitchen window/Are you free?”

The tune is led by a very forward break beat expertly laid down by Hofer, who has been called “The Human Metronome” for good reason. The guitars come on fast and mellow, giving way to a Tom Petty-like note pattern that reminds me in a good way of “You Got Lucky”.

Those lyrics strike a thirty-something nerve, and they get even better from there. I am sort of dissapointed that I didn’t really listen to them when I blasted the synth bits that serve to recast parts of the song as an 80’s nod to the Miami Vice soundtrack, which I love by the way, but not as a modern release. And I think that is an important aspect to this song that I did not quite think about or get at first glance. This might actually be the first smartly, subtly purposeful 80’s-era sound that the Hips have attempted, or anyone for that matter. And if you are going to break new ground, why not do it by digging a little in the old ground to see what you can use? Someday, even Civic’s will be classics…

Bandit Boy follows. And you know, I originally wrote here that the song fell short to me. And by doing so, I believe that it did give me a sideways tilt in that first listen. But since then I have listened to it a few times, and I think that I want to amend my first thought on it. This, my friends, is a truly powerful, even deviously mean song with strong, if slightly high concept imagery.

It is an up-tempo, slide heavy guitar rock song with a seriously heavy bottom and a killer breakdown,
There is a very southern rock feel to this song, and post-listen I am left wanting a handlebar mustache, an asspocket full of high wine and a shrink, and I am not sure if that is a good thing. That said, I do think that this song will grow on me, as it already churns with full rock fury and in fact may be one of those songs that comes across way better as a live number than as a studio release, a phenomenon that is not at all uncommon with the Mother Hips.

And finally, the eleventh tune. The closer. The one that will set the tone for the next record, which I am sure that the loyal devotees of the Hips have already started to yearn for. Clocking in at 7:36, Cheer Up Champ is the longest song to grace a Hips record in years. This is a different kind of song, spacey, ethereal, dreamy, and highly polished. Almost “soul” in nature and attitude, it too harkens back to the time before computers and robots and cell phone vibrators. From where I sit, its hard to tell if it’s a ballad, a bed time story, or a movement in psychedelia. Perhaps it is all three. The closest thing that I can think of to it is the song Motorhome. If, that is, Motorhome was taken out of the cottenwood canyons and deposited on the city streets, recast in a blue tone and fueled with a mixture of mescaline and Quaaludes.

There is a searing guitar solo that is fat and smart all at once, and harmonies to spare. This is a great track and an excellent closing number, ala Seaward Song and In This Bliss from past records.

Pacific Dust is a solid, rocking, if ambitious new record by the Mother Hips. This band has not once in their career chosen to stand pat and regurgitate their material. Instead, they have made careers out of shifting gears, attempting to push the boundaries that were pioneered by their own influences while maintaining their signature humility, grace, and eponymous skill. This is a band of men who are comfortable in their own skin, and gaining a sense of self-reflection as they forge ahead. If Kiss The Crystal Flake was a record about the phenomenon of time, then Pacific Dust is a record about making music, and it is a powerful, varied study on the process.

For those looking to see the Hips break out with a mainstream effort that will finally gain them the widespread exposure that they so clearly deserve, I do not think that this is going to be that record. This band is simply (and selfishly, given the state of commercial radio: thankfully) not made for radio, despite the fact that they have, in my opinion, many times over written some of the best rock songs in the past twenty years.

And to that dizzying list they add a few more off of Pacific Dust. Both the title track and White Falcon Fuzz are sick in very healthy ways, and may well serve as contemporary hits after all, although more likely via games like Rock Star or through cinematic soundtracks, for which, by the way, this band is a freaking gold mine. More likely, this record will further connect the far reaches of the audiosphere via hard work out on the long road, and the word of mouth from one fan to the next, earned one show, one record spin at a time, at that perfect time.

Third Floor Story, at long last, gets its place of prominence, though one might argue that the song would have fit better sequentially within earlier records such as Shootout or Part Timer Goes Full. But those times are indeed past, and I am beyond stoked to see it appear on this record. Cheer Up Champ is a stellar new song as well, and many of the others stand out as individually solid new songs.

I cannot help but think that there is here a song, maybe two, that might have been eschewed in favor of some long buried treasures such asLoup Garou, or the now-uncovered but unreleased rippers Desert Song or Mountain Time, or even a few recently released singles such as Childish Dreams, Colonized, or Blue Tomorrow. That may come off as a snitty, fanboy complaint, and I will own that if that is what it is. And who knows what contractual obligations exist therein? And who am I to question anything, anyways?

Pacific Dust moves the Mother Hips legacy forward and makes long, maturing strides musically and lyrically. Most importantly, Pacific Dust is a brilliant, seriously fun record.

As the New Yorker said so succinctly, the Mother Hips “sing it sweet and play it dirty”, to which I might add that they continue to relish in defining themselves on their own terms, with innovative, timeless music.

Marina, CA

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