Best known—if at all—from his days with surf rock weirdos Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (and then probably best known for providing the theme song for sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall), Brian Connelly doesn’t (presumably) let his below-the-radar status get him down. He’s a definite cult-level star, and it’s a stretch to say that Connelly should be a breakout star, but the man, with his guitar virtuosity and Ringling Brothers-like ability to juggle numerous musical styles, should be known in more circles than he is. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Connelly’s latest, ...En Hillbilly Caliente, the sophomore offering from his current outfit, Atomic 7, illustrates both why he should be more well-known and why he’ll always remain at the cult level. Hillbilly is great for those already in the know, but potentially disorienting for those new to the scene.
Connelly’s guitar sound may most be associated with surf rock, but don’t pigeonhole him. In a clever quote in the press packet accompanying Hillbilly, Connelly notes, “They used to call the Ventures a surf band and they were from Tacoma, WA and if you went surfing there you’d kill yourself.” Alright, so he’s not a surf rocker. Besides, such a reductive label ignores Connelly’s mastery over swing, Bakersfield, lounge, rockabilly, and country and western guitar. But, on ...En Hillbilly Caliente, what should be an asset—the abovementioned mastery—turns into a liability if (if) Connelly wants to expand his fanbase. To wit, album opener “Bury My Foot at Wounded Mouth”, with its happy-go-lucky, quasi-Bakersfield vibe, yields to the swingin’ “Celebrity Cocktails”, which in turn leads to the faux-spy movie theme “That Leftover Savoir Faire”. ...En Hillbilly Caliente is the aural equivalent of New England weather: it changes every five minutes. Fans hip to Connelly and knowledgeable of the pool from which he draws his tunes will rave; newbies may find themselves wishing the album came with Dramamine, or at least footnotes.
The above paragraph may be damning Connelly with faint praise, but that’s not my intention. Lemme try re-wording it: Connelly’s love for his influences runs deep, and is palpable pouring out of the speakers. At the risk of putting words in his mouth, if you can’t keep up with him, that’s your problem, not his. That attitude informs many a cult artist, and Connelly seems to be no exception.
The other “problem” “plaguing” (quotes very intentional, and words used for lack of better terms) Hillbilly is the album’s bizarre song titles: “Kicking at the Ghost of Ass”, “Funeral Hotpants” (okay, I sorta like that one), and “The Wreck of the Dick Family Weiner” are all great, lively tunes, but the obstinate song titles are off-putting; Connelly belongs to the Zappa-Claypool school of song titling. Again, Connelly counts on listeners to accept the songs on his terms: look past a silly title like “Devil’s Mittens”, and you’ll be treated to a loungey/rockabilly number that damn near spirals off into outer space. (A word about metaphorically taking flight: Kudos to Connelly’s bandmates bassist Mandi Bird and drummer Mike Andrioso for both grounding Connelly (in a good way) and exhibiting plenty of their own virtuosity; Bird’s work on the big rig rockers “Funeral Hotpants” and “Stab It and Steer It” are standout moments for thunderstick lovers.)
If you’re one of the lucky ones who isn’t tormented and anguished by willful cult status and near-dizzying genre hopping (that is to say, you’re not a jerk like me), there’s plenty more to marvel at on ...En Hillbilly Caliente: “Daddy’s Little World”, the ESPN highlight-music to be; the alternately noirsh-and-sunshiney “Meet Me Tonight in the Shadows of Love”; the fake TV sitcom theme “So Long Happy Days”; the C&W guitar lament “Riding the Sorry Train to Dumpsville”. Needless to say, ...En Hillbilly Caliente is brimming with ideas.
I fear my classification of Connelly and Co. as cult artists reads as a condemnation; please don’t interpret it as such. Those willing to go down Connelly’s rabbit hole with ...En Hillbilly Caliente will find many sonic rewards. Just remember to play by his rules.