[5 August 2007]
In early 2005, the Mother Hips released a brilliant little EP entitled Red Tandy. Based solely on the infectious, bottled lightning type energy of the EP’s title track as well as one of the most flawless and beautiful bridge sections in recent memory on the cut “Colonized”, the record would have been a praiseworthy achievement for the band. Each of the disc’s fifteen minutes was also packed with retro-influenced pop goodness. After such a realization of their ideals, it seemed the California rockers were on the verge of delivering something ridiculously good with their next full-length effort.
With Kiss the Crystal Flake, the band’s sixth LP, they mostly live up to such promises. The freedom to stretch out and spread their wings over a full-length format for the first time since releasing Green Hills of the Earth in 2001 means that there is more sprawl and less potency than on Red Tandy, but this collection manages to retain a similar spirit and sonic thread.
The Mother Hips have a certain pleasant and familiar quality which allows the potential for wide-ranging appeal. With their clear affection for vintage rock and roll and gift for writing tuneful melodies (and layering resonant harmonies on top of said melodies, a credit to the collaboration of vocalist/guitarists Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono), earthy jam-band lovers, graying former hippies, and the average rock record buyer can all unite around the Mother Hips’ sound. A track like “Let Somebody”, for example, may not be exactly what today’s radio programmers are looking for, but it serves as a microcosm of the band’s ability to reach across generational and stylistic lines. The song’s innate charm, easy groove, and silky-smooth chorus vocals work in tandem to create a memorable feeling; had the song been released in the late ‘60s or ‘70s, current TV commercials would be broadcasting its inclusion on an abundance of classic hits compilations. This, then, is the Mother Hips’ most valuable asset: When the band is at its best, their songs retain an ageless feel, making them just as attractive and engaging to audiences in 2007 as they would have been in 1967 or 1977.
Another of the band’s best qualities comes in their skill at mixing rough, ragged blues-oriented licks with their gliding melodies. Album opener “Mission In Vain” gets its drive from staccato guitar riffs and organ sweeps, creating a buoyant backdrop for the falsetto notes and inspired vocals which give lift to the song’s chorus. The song also transitions nicely between several distinct but overlapping sections, directed by the steady yet boisterous hand of drummer John Hofer. Songs like “Confirmation of Love” and “TGIM” also deftly mix bluesy guitars and richly textured vocals to satisfying results. Verses on the former are jerky while the chorus features sweetly splendid backing harmonies; the latter features a trippy opening lick before giving way to a steady blues rock groove and ascending melodic lines.
The Mother Hips’ instrumental cohesion allows the band to meander through instrumental passages and tempos when appropriate and tighten the screws when a song requires emotional build. Hofer and bassist Paul Hoaglin keep the pace steady and the pulse driving, giving Bluhm and Loiacono room to roam. The laid-back, soulful rock of “White Headphones” and straight-ahead shuffle of “Time We Had” are other album highlights and point to the band’s unity of vision as expressed through variations on their basic sound.
There are but a few patchy moments on the record, most of which seem forced efforts by the band, contradicting the effortless impressions of other cuts. The guitar and keyboard figures on “No-Name Darrell” are grating at times and the song’s rhythmic pace seem a bit pushy. Contrary to what Christopher Walken might think, there is no need for the cowbell on “White Hills”; though its presence may be infrequent, the use of the instrument and a few ill-advised screams of glee give the song an outdated feel rather than add to the authenticity other classic-rock flavored tracks project. The indulgent lyrics (and title) of “Time-Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear” seem silly, not a connection to the band’s psychedelic roots, distracting from the song’s enjoyable guitar work.
Kiss the Crystal Flake is an album perfectly built to complement the joys of summer. Upon experiencing the record, visions of road trips, rock festivals and carefree living are likely to abound in listeners’ heads. However, upon multiple listens, the true depths and colors of the record become more and more apparent, giving the Mother Hips yet another gratifying melodic gem in their catalog.