“This most baffling of country singers,” says Jana Pendragon at the end of the All Music Guide entry on Skip Heller. I’m not sure why Heller would be baffling, though on its own this CD Mean Things Happening in This Land would baffle anyone seeing him described as a country singer. He seems to have a considerable range, wide musical interests, a lot of differently disposable talent, a prodigious website where a lot of his music is available for on-line acquisition, and even a CD of piano-guitar duo jazz with Uri Caine. This is not boring music. The efforts at novelty and excitement aren’t its most interesting aspects, but there’s a lot more, and the occasional fooling around is fine. This is also not bored music. It’s a highly intelligent organ-guitar-drums trio set with real sparkle.
I shuddered slightly at the start. “Dear God”, credited to Andy Partridge (XTC), has an overaccented backbeat from the drummer on a reggae beginning from organ and guitar. Then there’s the drummer. David White, who throughout the set shows he has what it takes, shades delivery of the backbeat, and the irony is palpable. I’m sick of mechanical backbeats and robot drummers, and maybe Heller is too.
The music on the CD is gentle, and swings and swings. The irony is sensitive, Heller soloing in blues-rock guitar style with quotes from “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” and a figure associated with Miles Davis, one whose name I never remember. Chris Spies solos on organ with considerable feeling, the third member of a trio which might be called Heller’s Liberal Dose, or is informally called such after a previous CD by the same delightful ensemble, recorded live in Spies’ and White’s home state of Alabama. The skirting of clichés on this performance does bespeak irony, but not at all of any clever-clever sort. They’re making music, rather than feeling superior.
Heller’s “Katrina, Mon Amour” suggests the ballad “Close Your Eyes” and the perky “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. The wit of the trio opening isn’t unexpected, after what happens on “Dear God”, but they get down to music and are never pretentious. After the three solo contributions, White on bongos the last of them, Heller plays a cowboy bass-string guitar chorus, Spies an old pop organ one, and Heller’s coda isn’t far from Wes Montgomery.
“Heckuvajob” has a lengthy substantial solo from the leader before Spies solos nicely on maybe clavinet, certainly an electric-guitar-friendly keyboard instrument, with his own organ coming in toward the end to join Heller’s exemplary rhythm guitar. There’s an ending which doesn’t let down the happy feel.
“Motel Room in My Bed” (Doe/Cervenka) isn’t a complaint, since these guys were too preoccupied dancing that tune to have needed a bed at the time. Heller’s qualities as soloist are distinguished by a capacity to coin riffs. “On Beautiful Bright Blue Skye” has nothing to do with the Scottish island, which isn’t anyway blue: it’s an allusion to the Heller website’s mp3 resources.
“Hideout in the Sun” has a spaghetti western sort of beginning, with loud twanging from Spies as Heller settles down in a groove. Spies, with excellent drum support, delivers nice music, gravitating from pseudo-guitar into keyboard. Heller again solos well. All the fun or irony seems to be in the title in the Latin-rhythm “President Nero?” Heller does justice to yet another of his own very pretty themes.
On “The Kind of Beauty That Moves”, Spies synthesizes a second and echoey guitar part behind a heavily amplified but not loud theme statement from Heller, with hints of slide or Hawaiian or rock. The guitarist solos over an ostinato from the keyboardist, whose solo is on electric piano and up to the mark.
“Punk Rock Girl”, theme by Dead Milkmen, is cleared up into something like a Heller composition, or something based firmly on a standard standard’s family tree and chord structure. It’s an extremely good-natured example of organ-guitar-drums jazz of a sort with no need to be innovative. These men make music .
“Aragon Mill” (composer credit Kahn) is a country song, literally so since it has words and is sung in an attractive smoky voice by a lady whose name I didn’t catch. “The mill has shut down,” she begins, and where are the lady in the song and her husband to go? There are no solos, there’s not much to identify the performance as jazz, there’s no self-pity expressed, and if Heller’s site describes him as a musician from the “LEFT coast” this latest CD is intelligent and sane and unfanatically lively. The good life is still possible!