[4 January 2012]
Of their three full-length albums, Welcome to the Midnight Opry sounds the most like a Pine Hill Haints live show. The instruments used and who’s playing them is in constant flux. The chemistry is delicate and intense. Voices are reverberating through an antique microphone. All that’s missing is alcohol and sweat. It’s equally what they do and the way they do it that makes Pine Hill Haints unique.
And that unique spirit is partly the result of their tools; Pine Hill uses a single snare, a gut-bucket bass, a thrashed-out old acoustic guitar, the bowed saw, mandolin, fiddle, hamfisted banjo, and (now utilized more than ever) accordion. But it’s also their craftsmanship. They have great songwriting, led by Jamie Barrier, is sentimental and wise and written about all those inescapable topics (Death, Family, and even Baseball). Matt Bakula’s lyrics are equally proficient, but they’re equally strange, enigmatic, even confounding: “I am the low / There are no others undertow / As far as I know / I am the very lowest low / And I have farther still to go / Yeah that low”, goes one line.
It’s even their methods: Pine Hill Paints use a single microphone and switch instruments within the songs. The players show so much common ground, they may as well be a family band.
The opening track on Welcome to the Midnight Opry, “Jack of Fire” might remind us that Pine Hill Haints once used cemeteries for practice space; under the spooky siren of Katie “Kat” Barrier’s wailing saw, the Haints sound like a skeleton band thumping through lines like, “I danced to the chorus of a thousand bullfrogs / They call out your name in the hallow of a log”. “Red Light” demonstrates another side of Pine Hill—the bizarre calypso side—with Matt Bakula’s belting out a call-and-response shouter about the significance of the color red, raking a banjo as he explores he depths of his bass vocal range. “Moon Shadow”, on the other hand, could easily soundtrack a 1950’s romance—it sounds fit to be blaring from your grandmother’s kitchen radio.
The big problem with Welcome To the Midnight Opry is the production. The typically retro-centric Haints recorded the album live in one night on old-fashioned tape. The results are sonically dull. The acoustic guitar and vocals, in particular, are quiet and somewhat colorless when compared to the band’s earlier recordings. The tracklist is poorly sequenced, too, with an introduction on track 14 and all of Bakula’s songs lumped in the middle. As a result, the album feels over-long and disengaging.
Pine Hill Haints is a unique and greatly underrated band, and their songs speak a great deal of truth. While Midnight Opry adequately captures their ramshackle live sound, it does so in a way that provides no favors. While fans of the band will be sustained by new tracks and old tricks, newcomers should look to their back catalog for a proper introduction to Alabama ghost music.