- The Mother Hips
- Behind Beyond
I’ve been a Mother Hips fan for over twenty years. I was living in Chico, California during the bands dorm days at CSU. I was still searching, after eons of Dead tour, for a place to call home. While enjoying the magic of Maui and traversing that tiny island for the sound that would carry me into the future I picked up a Back to the Grotto cassette. That relic crystallized my vision and I realized that I needed to move back to Chico to be around The Mother Hips. I promoted their shows, made their t-shirts, did interviews, spread the word and basically bothered them as much as possible. Two decades later I still anticipate their latest release. While a superior dynamo live band, they have the distinction of also being an accomplished and pioneering studio band—Behind Beyond is the celebration of several years of fine-tuning.
The Mother Hips has had its roster shake-ups over the years. Original member and drummer supreme Mike Wofchuck got axed in favor of the golem of percussion John Hofer. Original bassist and excellent dude Isaac Parsons left and was replaced by Hips studio whiz multi-instrumentalist longtime associate Paul Hoaglin. And finally, bringing us to the current line-up—two years ago, Hoaglin left and was replaced by bass assassin Scott Thunes. Every incarnation has been great, but nowadays is always the best of days.
To bring you up to speed, in the last two years The Mother Hips live performance have been reinvigorated by the power and excellence of Thune’s frenetic contribution on bass. Like the band that shall not be named for the sake of driving an obsolete point to death (OK, it’s The Grateful Dead)—The Mother Hips are also not particularly consistent in their live performances. Out of four shows, one will be transcendent, two will be satisfactorily great and one will be well, better than digging a ditch. I accept these odds—I would rather see a band that has brilliant days and cloudy nights than a band that is always polished and bright (boring). So, I’m sure there have been shows people have caught where Thunes is not unhinged. But, my point is that this madman, this Zappa henchman, is a fucking catalyst and white hot fire under The Mother Hips belly and that is not a bad thing.
All this brings me around to the bands 8th release Behind Beyond. One day I’ll ask the band what they meant by the title and yada, yada, yada but for now I intend to heavily speculate. Behind Beyond gives the impression of somebody going forwards and backwards at the same time, a Pushmi-Pullyu four headed beast that no matter how fast it moves, never gets anywhere. Career wise, this is an apt description of The Mother Hips. This album is made up of studio sessions back when Hoaglin was still in the band—so, Thunes is nowhere to be seen on this release. The review is to follow—but I am already hungry for the next one where Thunes prowess can be heard both digitally and through analogue.
Behind Beyond weighs in at 10 songs, a bouncing baby with a full head of hair and a strong heartbeat. Long for an EP, short for an album, Behind Beyond has no filler—just encrusted jeweled treasures that sparkle like a new constellation.
Upon the third listening of Behind Beyond, the songs came into sharp telescopic focus. Starting off with a slow dreamy ballad entitled “Isle Not of Man” front man Tim Bluhm’s enchanting voice, and Greg Loiacono’s velvet harmonies drive a landscape that is cinematic and voluptuous. Someday, somebody is going to win an Oscar for using songs like this one in their movie’s soundtrack.
One of two singles comes next, penned by Loiacono and entitled “Freed from a Prison”. A perfect song that embodies the truly human realization—that we all have had, or desperately need—that we have been caught too long in an increasingly narrow perspective on life. What is it that finally gets us to wake up and shed the minds blinders? The song has an extended jam that is reminiscent of everything from Dire Straits to Eric Clapton—with vocal gymnastics by Bluhm that have a solid-footed landing in the catchy refrain. It almost seems like the band is getting retrospective. Looking at the past to get ahead, perhaps?
Next up is the second single, “Toughie”. It’s a peppy, upbeat tune like an odd amalgamation of saloon music with bouncy radio-friendly hooks. If the band were trying to write a song that is marketable while still capturing what is known as California Soul, this would be it. I don’t need to analyze every song, but again, there seems to be an autobiographical bent about the need, as an artist, to be tough enough to handle the criticism but thin enough to “let the world in.” I cannot fathom what it’s like to be part of a musical experience that for twenty years are still seeking their “Touch of Grey” moment—but the Hips mindset might well be mulling this salacious point.
Approaching the mid-point we have one of the finest songs I’ve heard from the band. The ballad called “Jefferson Army” tells the tale of the secessionist movement in Northern California in the 1940s and the feelings harbored by those invested in the creation of a 51st state. And yet, it speaks volumes about our current life in the 21st Century. Within the dreams and hearts of the faithful there is still the long shot hope of living in a world, or state, without oppression. At once a battle song for radicals both on the left and right, it’s a unifying anthem—and perhaps, The Mother Hips most political song to date.
The fulcrum of the album “Best Friend in Town” comes out of the speakers and it’s nice to hear Loiacono’s voice as the lead. Bluhm does take the lion’s share of lead vocals, so it’s always a pleasant surprise when a Loiacono tune pops up. BFIT starts me thinking of it as a companion piece to “Young Charles Ives” ( Pacific Dust) which told the heartbreaking tale of a father and son. I hear the story of a contentious relationship that once the layers are peeled away reveal an undying love—but, I could totally wrong on this one. In any case the tune ends with vocal harmonies that would make The Marshall Tucker Band faint.
Tipping towards the last half of what has been a tremendous effort, “Creation Smiles” harkens back to the early years of Bluhm’s poetry journals having life breathed into them and animating onstage. At once phrase heavy, then sonic low end rumbles, and back to ambling Ezra Pound worthy lyrics—the slow-paced and psychedelic song is like a DMT vision filtered through raw honey.
“Shape the Bell” is the second and the last track where Loiacono takes lead vocal. A burning bass line by Hoaglin carries the tune until it spirals out into the multiverse. The Mother Hips have been compared to many bands, as the similarity is in the ear of the beholder—but this tune sounds like it could have been on the “A” side of The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus from LA’s Spirit (1970). Also like LA’s Beachwood Sparks, a band that paralleled The Mother Hips journey through the 90s, “Shape the Bell” provides a fine example of The Mother Hips prowess in the recording studio. Almost all the tracks on Behind Beyond are under the bands own label, Little Sur, and laid down at their own studio, Mission Bells. The Mother Hips may not have invented the DIY philosophy, but they certainly live it.
Thus we get to the eponymous “Behind Beyond”, penned and sung by the word craftsman Bluhm. The seasons of lazy hot California summers culminate in his trademark dreamy doe-eyed vocals. You can almost feel the river of time rolling by, like tumbleweeds on the sides of the highway. Famously singing songs that featured girls names through the decades, this one is more murky as to whom he declares that he’s “alive”—but I’m pretty sure that past flame has since had kids.
“Rose of Rainbows” begins like a classic Mother Hips song, it could be “Time-Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear” ( Kiss the Crystal Flake) we’re hearing. But that’s the Sound, the perpetual elements that fuel the mothership through distant radioactive nebulas. Although a Summer release, this song is going to sound much better when it’s raining outside—In Portland it might already be a hit.
Behind Beyond ends like most of their live shows do lately, which is a perfect touch. Like the Dead had “Brokedown Palace” to ease the crowd out into the stark lit street, “Song for J.B.” is a Nashville ditty lamenting the passing of Wilco guitar wizard Jay Bennett. Nothing on Behind Beyond even resembles the country-laced flair the Hips used to be synonymous with—given the context, it’s bittersweet to hear such a lovely country fueled ballad closing the album.
For the record, Behind Beyond has been rotating on my boombox for an entire week. The songs have gone genetic on me—the twists and turns have been etched like scrimshaw onto my bones. Now I get it, now I drank the Kool-aid—now I look forward to this dragon’s egg of songs in person. Now I cannot wait for that next show I can make—I hope it’s one of the epic ones.
DNA is famously not famous. Catch his unique brand of stand-up comedy at www.votedna.com.