A long time ago (the early ‘90s, to be exact), the Mother Hips had about as much chance as any other band to be the next big thing in a music landscape booming with “grunge” and “alternative” bands. It never happened. Despite tuneful songs, major label signings, and plenty of talent, the Mother Hips never quite caught on. They released a few albums, garnered a modest following that mostly stayed in their home state of California, and eventually got tired enough of the whole music scene to take one of those open-ended breaks that usually means we’ll never hear from them again.
A little time off, it seems, was just what they needed.
2007 saw the release of their first album in over six years, mashing together all the ideas of their first career into the perfect statement to kick off their second; Kiss the Crystal Flake was a lovely, rootsy little thing that sounded far more content than any of the Hips’ previous material. This contentedness works for the Mother Hips, making them sound like a band whose members are comfortable with each other, a cohesion that led to some of the poppiest and prettiest songs they’d ever recorded, including the perfectly concise “Time We Had”, which ended up in MTV Games’ Rock Band—the biggest break into the mainstream the band had in nearly 15 years.
Pacific Dust‘s biggest fault is that it’s more of the same, but that’s hardly a bad thing when you can listen to it front-to-back without wanting to skip a single part. The highlights never travel too high, nor the lowlights too low; it’s remarkably consistent. Much of this has to do with the aforementioned contentedness that the band has taken on—Pacific Dust is uniformly confident and cohesive an album, as easy and laid back with fuzz guitar solos as it is with three-part harmonies, sometimes at the same time. The California-inspired sound is as prevalent as ever, making the band sound a bit like what might have happened if the Eagles formed 20 years later than they did, or what Wilco might sound like if Jeff Tweedy got more sun.
The relaxed feel of the album doesn’t stop it from cutting a bit lyrically, however. “Third Floor Story”—which is, granted, perhaps the hardest-rocking song on the entire album—is a look at the record industry that chewed them up and spit them out. “Now the company quit / They didn’t do shit / For my new record / What do I have to do to get a break?,” sings Tim Bluhm, and despite the song being ostensibly fictional, it’s obvious that it’s coming from a personal place. Not coincidentally, “Third Floor Story” leads directly into “Jess OXOX”, no contest the poppiest track on the album. Is this the sort of track the mean old record company was pressuring them to write? Are they merely trying to show off the wide range of their songwriting skills? It’s not clear, but the transition from one to the other is the most jarring moment on the album, though what exactly that transition means is certainly open to interpretation.
Elsewhere, “All in Favor” uses soaring falsetto harmony lines to skewer corporate groupthink, while closer “Bandit Boy” finds uses a light blues structure to tell a tale of self-doubt and failure with a dash of self-realization (“I’m able to sing because I’m able to fly son / You heard me right / It’s all about timing”), punctuated by an extended coda filled with glorious dirty guitar soloing. The Mother Hips have a way of making sorrow turn to triumph in a manner that’s not exhilarating so much as satisfying.
Whether an album like Pacific Dust signifies a happy ending (or, at least, a happy second act) for the Mother Hips depends on semantics—it’s clear at this point that a spot in the mainstream radio mix is simply not in the cards for these guys. More importantly, though, it also sounds as though they could care less about mainstream radio. It’s enough just to write songs and set them loose. This approach will never set the world on fire, but anyone who hears the result will be hard-pressed to argue against it.