Soulhat is similar to Walter E. Kurtz, the insane army colonel who was the subject of the film Apocalypse Now. Of Kurtz it was said, “when the top brass tried to reign him in, he refused and kept going, and kept winning it his way.” Soulhat said no to the offer to be the next Dave Matthews Band or, worse yet, Hootie & the Blowfish. Instead, this Austin-based foursome (now trio) chose self-implosion at least twice, preferring to be local indie heroes in the Lone Star state than be thrown into the big major label black hole.
For the uninitiated, Experiment on a Flat Plane affords the opportunity to get in on the ground floor—yet again—of a band Texans say can only be properly appreciated live. This record is the product of an on-going process of personnel shuffling. Gone are two of the original members—blues guitar virtuoso Bill Cassis and bassist Brian Walsh, who chose to get married and become a family man. Imagine that. The mainstay madcap of Soulhat, writer/singer/guitarist Kevin McKinney, returns with that most venerable percussionist Barry “Frosty” Smith, whose credits include stints with Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone, and Parliament/Funkadelic. Newcomer Johnny Vogelsang plays bass, while engineer Mac McNabb adds additional guitar work. But that’s only the line-up for this album. Frosty has left the band for a second time.
Never mind. Put this disc on and go driving across the state of Texas. By the time you reach Odessa, you’ll discover the trip hasn’t been so bad. Hit the repeat button for the twelfth time (or twentieth, depending on how you drive) and take ‘er on in to El Paso. Ready to go back?
Soulhat embodies that fundamental American need to be obnoxiously present and yet just beyond reach. Critics have labeled them everything from “funksters” to a “jam band,” but the group successfully eludes any specific classification. Jam bands, as rule, have something to hide—namely that they have nothing to say. Soulhat’s credo is summed up in the song “City”: “This is the bridge, oh yes it is / This is the bridge to the city / Everybody movin’ to the left, everybody movin’ up / Movin’ out, movin’ in between, except for us / We’re just movin’ around and around and around…” In other words, if you’re going to be a dead beat, at least be philosophical about it. Non-hackers like Brian Walsh choose to settle down. Good for him. Kevin McKinney is still lost, still disoriented on that barren plane, and apparently loving every minute of it.
Flat Plane includes two of the earliest McKinney compositions, “Mailbox” and “My Man Joe.” The former is the delightful reggae vibe of a young lad walking by a girl’s house every day, describing in detail her mailbox, her yard, her sprinkler system, her bug zapper; but the girl herself is only said to be “fascinating.” The title track includes swirling acoustic guitar work, hyphenated by dissonant notes that wink and grin at the listener. “WNBA” is a two-stepping tragedy of love lost to professional women’s basketball: “She’s wearing lipstick in the back-court / Panties on the foul line / I hope she doesn’t suffer injury.” Some slashing acoustic slide is thrown in to heighten the angst. And “Microwave,” the best track on this disc, is about…well, you figure it out. Regardless, the musicianship throughout is impeccable, featuring exuberant interplay between the two guitars on the shoulders of Frosty’s stand-in-the-gap drumming.
The packaging for the disc includes Adam Bork’s cover photograph Musicians on a Flat Plane. At first glance appearing to be some stark, Depression-era photo, it turns out to be a couple of buffoons in bee-keeper (or radiation) suits. Would Alan Lomax have stopped his car for these two? Epic Records picked up Soulhat for awhile, issuing their “debut” disc Good to Be Gone in 1994. The song “Bonecrusher” became a sports highlight clip soundtrack and is still the rush hour anthem in Austin. But when it came to promoting the band, Epic dropped the boys off on some lonely Texas dirt road. Slammed the door, slinging gravel. That’s a good thing. The band broke up for awhile and reevaluated its priorities. Cassis said “no” to a reunion, but McKinney determined to keep going, saying, “nobody’s asking for their money back.”
Neither will anyone who listens to Experiment on a Flat Plane. A smirking dissertation on the virtues of loafing, this is a modern American classic, and easily one of the better albums of the year.