ALBUM: Heigh Ho
ARTIST: Blake Mills
Album release date: September 12, 2014
Blake Mills reminds me somewhat of the first guy to discover that you can make a battery out of a potato. Not the “sleekest” way of going about things, sure; but an expression of ingenuity, careful thought, creativity, and an economic handle on pre-existing techniques. Mills is the kind of guy who can take musical potatoes and turn them into supercapacitors capable of supplying an experience of unmatched power and energy, the chemical equivalents of sonic originality and excellence.
The fact that no one knows off the top of the head who the battery-potato guy was simply validates this stupid analogy further: “I have no commercial aspirations,” Mills has said. “All the aspirations for [this album] have been met. I just wanted to make a record that sounds like a record I want to hear.”
Mills is a 28-year-old California native. An under-the-radar, deeply respected guitar wizard who would “rather be on the side of something beautiful that never catches on than the alternative.” His latest release, Heigh Ho, is one of those rare albums that is so sheerly good and tasteful that it isn’t likely to catch the attention of the world at large, because it doesn’t pander to the fickle fastfood palate of the zeitgeist.
Mills is a versatile master of his instrument who has an oddly shrewd grasp of language and an old-man perspective on life and love. He resists the idea of being considered an “artistic type” insofar as that insinuates an overly precious attachment to his music as being part of an opus that will one day sweep everyone to their knees after years of nursing a festering, albeit brilliant, heart in isolation: his approach, he says, is more of a response to stimuli than anything, a process of unlocking the hieroglyphics of life as it comes to him through sensory data. There is no overt trickery, flashiness, or self-indulgence here: just an honest desire to make sense of things day by day, and to do it well.
His rich experience as a session-musician and producer (he produced Alabama Shakes latest album, and has worked closely with the likes of Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams, Weezer, Neil Diamond, The Avett Brothers, Conor Oberst and others over the past few years) is obvious only when you stop to consider how not obvious his expertise is. He’s so naturally gifted, and so aware of why he’s making music, that he can afford to embrace imperfect arrangements, production, and playing when it comes to his own work and thereby create something with more blood and personality in it than any of the most tightly-tuned platinum records you see flying of the digital shelves today. Heigh Ho transcends categorization, combining folk, Americana, country, and blues under the warm, gritty touch and tone of Mills’ voice and guitar-work (speaking of his voice, Mills recorded many of the vocal takes in his car, right into his laptop: “The sound was actually quite good, because the car is like an isolation chamber. All the cloth seats soaked up any reflections, and the windshield was angled at such a drastic slope that there wasn’t slapback. And, y’know, everyone sings in the car!”). Nothing sounds formulaic or expected, yet everything maintains an undeniable consanguinity.
Backed by the musical prowess of lauded session players like drummer Jim Keltner, bassists Mike Elizondo and Mr. Was, and keyboard players Jon Brion and Benmont Tench, this sophomore album is a testament to the human capacity to collaborate and refashion, and to gather words and sounds to make sense of the human experience; and it is furthermore an expose of a unique individual who has a wide streak of brilliance in him.
The song Seven has a country twang in it, reminiscent of Patsy-Cline, and made dynamic by Fiona Apple’s harmonies. Half Asleep is tenderly contemplative and anticipatory, with a string section like something you’d hear in a Clark Gable movie. Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me is an upbeat, rollicking, Americana-style tune and probably the most lyrically naked song of the album. Shed Your Head is a tight, grooving jam session that unfurls bit by bit. These songs scoop into different genres and eras, all making masterful use of space, texture, depth of field, and room-dynamics (it took them a year to mix the album to where Mills felt it was an accurate portrayal of the studio experience). Every song could have an entire paragraph dedicated to it: but they’re each meant to be experienced one-on-one, not described and then let alone.
Heigh Ho is an excellent album made powerful by great songwriting, seasoned session players, and a curious look at life.