Sometimes, subtle is the way to go. It would seem to be the key behind the pleasant pop of Cliff Hillis. At first listen, it seems nice enough. But with repeated listens, the subtle nuances emerge, elevating this music well above the norm. Better Living Through Compression, the impressive sophomore release from the former Starbelly member, finds Hillis in good form, backed by his band of Forward Thinkers (Ken Herblin on guitar, Dave Anthony on drums, Greg Maragos on bass) and a host of guest musicians.
The amiable Hillis (a bona fide nice guy) knows his pop/rock music history well. Indeed, his uncanny covers of songs on various compilations over these past few years have come to be personal favorites (McCartney's "This One", Tommy Roe's "Dizzy", and Teenage Fanclub's "Can't Feel My Soul"). He's so adept at covering various styles and artists, I've often found myself wondering what his next release might sound like.
Better Living Through Compression does not disappoint. Most of these songs are mid-tempo numbers steeped in rock/pop influences from what's gone before, yet they stand out as impressive originals. Each of these 11 tracks is as well put-together as any of those cover songs, a further testament to Hillis's abilities. Those talents are on full display here: you get Hillis as singer/songwriter, guitarist, keyboardist, producer and mixer.
The CD opens with the infectious "So Much To Tell You", the tale of a man tired of hiding behind the charade of being "little more than a good friend." He knows there's a risk involved in confessing all he has to tell, still that risk is better than regret: "You can't prepare for what might have been / It never hurts as much as when you're looking back on the chances that you'll never get again." The harmonies, combined with the affable melody, make this one a winner.
A slightly slower pace suits "Used to Be the Man", a musical reminisce of a man twenty years beyond his prime, still "always looking back" to what now seems like another life, a distant daydream.
The genial love song "Two of the Same" is another devilishly catchy one, featuring some fine guitar fills that accompany this happy realization: "Back and forth we dream out loud of the future perfect day / Take a number, settle down, there must be another way / But you came along, and what could I say / Now I know for sure, we're two of the same."
Hillis has a gift for subtle emotions that touch just the right note. The sweet melodic shuffle that is "Home" is a simple celebration of independence, even when sometimes feeling "on the outside".
"Madeline", sounding like a classic song from the '60s, addresses a woman after a failed relationship, seeking to find common footing and friendship even after so much has changed. He notes the inevitability of change, the shame of it, the difficulty of finding meaning in life and more: "It's funny how sometimes the more you try / The more some things in life just pass you by." The Jellybricks lend great harmonic backing vocals.
The harder rocking (and relatively short) "Go Go Go" is an anthem to commitment from a philosophic superman: "It's alright if you want to stay / I've been waiting for you every day / There's just one thing you've gotta know / I will never let you go go go / Save it for another life."
Hillis seems to have a knack for infectious melodies, but in "China Heart", he lets fly with his most poetic lyrics: "In the last days of the fall / Could you be my China doll / Sit inside an open box / Whisper slowly / Look to the periphery / Ask the stars to blink for me / Smiling from your China heart / Lay beside me / I'll follow you into tomorrow."
What if broken hearts could really kill you? This perspective is the one given us in "Six Feet Under", where one thus afflicted is begging for another chance: "I'll be everything you ever want me to / Still we fade into black / Can't sleep, the rain is always falling down on me / Take me back."
The spare piano and chorus of backing vocals by Ritchie Rubini (who co-wrote this song) drive the haunting "All These Memories". This poignant recounting of how memories return like long-lost friends, going on as yesterday becomes today and even tomorrow: "All these memories lay beside me as I go to sleep / Stirring slowly, miles below me, coming back to keep."
Another three-minute gem is the pleasingly jangly "Better Than Myself". Here Hillis recounts the battle of winning the confidence of a reluctant other: "Talk to strangers, get a strange reply / It's so obvious to me / Like the weather, making up your mind is never easy or complete / I would like to know you better than anyone else / I would like to know you better than myself."
The CD closes with "Ribbons & Rain", a ballad of a man tired of the same old runaround: "There's no point in leading me when it's the same circle we follow again, tied up with ribbons and rain."
There are oblique musical references here that extend from the Fab Four to the pre-Fab Four (my beloved Monkees) and far beyond, yet every song stands on its own as a genuinely catchy Cliff Hillis original.
Cliff Hillis doesn't shout out his many talents from the rooftops. Like his music, Hillis is subtle, graceful, confident and contained. But the talent is real and the proof is in the music. The cordial songs of Better Living Through Compression get better with each repeated listen, and in a world often besieged with the blatant, perhaps the time for subtlety is now.