The host of Hickory Wind profiles a favorite Americana band.
By Vince Meserko
The Mother Hips might be my favorite band … or at least top 5. This San Francisco band was once the most popular act in the college town of Chico, California in the early 1990s. Everyone expected huge things when they signed to Rick Rubin’s American label in the mid-1990s. Their American recordings failed to sell, because the label was in free fall by the time the Hips hopped aboard.
Undeterred, they managed to trek on, building a considerable grassroots following that has stuck with the band through personnel changes and even a hiatus in the early 2000s. Their post-hiatus years have been some of the best. The band somehow continues to get better and expects to release a new album in late-spring early-summer 2013. Their sound has been called “California soul.” It is a perfect blend of power-pop, alt-country twang, psychedelic space jams, and honey-sweet Beach Boys-style harmonies. Their songwriting is often quite odd. The band’s songs puzzle-piece together in strange and beautiful ways with ever-shifting changes in dynamics and tempo.
They seem to take their cues from everyone from The Kinks, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, The Grateful Dead, and The Byrds. Their earlier stuff even hints at punk-rock influences. The Hips have covered an awful lot of musical territory, constantly changing their sound but always sounding themselves. The group is anchored by singer/guitarist Tim Bluhm and guitarist and sometimes singer Greg Loiacono. Tim and Greg’s brilliant harmonies and interlocking guitars are pure magic. Tim’s guitar tone often reaches Neil Young levels of crackle and hiss, while Loiacono’s unorthodox leads make his guitar playing instantly recognizable. The current lineup also features the steady John Hofer on drums and Scott Thunes, formerly a member of Frank Zappa’s band, on bass. Here are my favorite Mother Hips songs in chrnological order:
Back to the Grotto (1993): “Hey Emilie” – The quintessential Hips song. A long build-up gives way to a raucous chorus as Bluhm screams over top of a crunching guitar riff.
Part-Timer Goes Full (1995): “Pet Foot” – This song might rock harder than anything in the Hips catalog. This is the closest the band got to punk rock. Loiacono’s guitar is the star on this one.
Shootout (1996): “Transit Wind” – This is my favorite Mother Hips song, and one of my favorite songs by any band. Tim Bluhm’s voice is gut-wrenching and the lyrics are some of his finest. A beautiful, understated guitar solo, a weird mid-song interlude, a rollicking outro jam, and some of the band’s trademark harmonies are all present in this absolutely gorgeous song.
Later Days (1998): “Later Days” – This title track finds the Hips at their twangiest. More great harmonies from Tim and Greg, with Tim’s low-pitched voice sounding a bit like Johnny Cash. The verses, full of smart lyrics protesting the trappings of materialism, give way to a lovely, soaring chorus.
Green Hills of Earth album (2001): “Take Us Out” – This album gave guitarist Greg Loiacono more of an opportunity to step out front on lead vocals. He has a really remarkable voice as this song demonstrates. The song sounds a bit like early Bee Gees (I assure you this is a compliment). This is a pure and shimmering power-pop ballad that ranks among the band’s best efforts (and also made it into rotation at KJHK in 2001).
Red Tandy EP (2005): “Red Tandy” – This song shows off the band’s sense of humor. Funny lyrics, more harmonies, and a Kinks-style guitar riff mark the band’s return to making music together after a brief hiatus.
Kiss the Crystal Flake (2007): “Time We Had” – This might be the band’s catchiest song. It’s surprising it did not become a huge hit. This is just a fantastic pop song. As a drummer, I also love John Hofer’s crash cymbal crescendos. A really unique touch for a really unique band.
Pacific Dust album (2009): “Young Charles Ives” – Another song with Greg on lead vocals. The twangy vocals and guitar riff give away to a really transcendent outro, complete with huge harmonies and a string orchestra that seems to come out of nowhere. Another reason why this band is so brilliant.
Do It On The Strings Acoustic Live in California November 2010 (2011): “Out On the Side” – This is a cover of an old Gene Clark song. I’ve always loved the band’s various, more acoustically-inclined side projects. Tim Bluhm’s voice sounds better than it ever has on this song. This cover is just so so so lovely. Go listen to it now.