|Moe's Alley welcomes back California rock favorites THE MOTHER HIPS for 1 night only! Special guests JACKPOT open the show.
Few bands have arrived more fully formed than The Mother Hips. Stepping into the world in 1992 – looking as charmingly scruffy and fresh faced as any young band has ever looked – Tim Bluhm (vocals, guitar), Greg Loiacono (vocals, guitar), Isaac Parsons (bass, vocals) and Mike Wofchuck (drums) did not come on like a bunch of college novices knocking out their first long-player. Back To The Grotto is the sound of a benevolent, odd gang aching to make their mark in rock’s grand book. You can practically smell the ambition and keep-them-up-at-night sweats in just the first few minutes. Hungry might be a simpler way of saying it, but plenty of bands are famished and the Hips came on like guys who believed even in their formative days that they were gonna get a spot at the big table or die trying – and given that Grotto ranks handily with the firsts from Badfinger and Moby Grape it was reasonable to share that belief.
“I went out to the desert on some pills with no name. The doctor couldn’t tell me what they were and, man, ain’t that a shame?”
However, before a note rings out, one enters a touch puzzled. Who is this Little Lord Fauntleroy on the cover? Is it a child or a little person? And who names their debut “back to” anything? That’s usually reserved for the fourth album no one wants from a one-hit wonder. Then we meet Emilie…but really we don’t. Like much of the album, there’s a peculiar specificity that’s given openness for others to fill in, elbow room left in the curves of the Hips’ calligraphy. What seems etched – Los Angeles, dear pain erasing Emilie – become our characters through an act of poetry, but poetry with balls, nothing too high tone despite all the preternatural wisdom and understanding flowing in these songs. Despite their age, the Hips ensnare some fairly large truths on Grotto. What other men of their age reject the power of tits and ass or understand that true corruption runs far deeper than the politicians we catch?
“This is a man who walks around with his head held high but his pants are falling down.”
In every corner of this album, they push at the boundaries of their talents, egged on by producer and future bassist Paul Hoaglin, dancing between sweet melody and dissonance, dotting the music with endless small, lovely touches – primal howls, miniature guitar solos, falsetto blasts, shimmery swells – but in a manner that’s not too careful, some mess left on things because that’s how the real world is. The rhythm team is so perfectly foundational that one almost doesn’t notice them, and thus may miss just how bloody good Wofchuck and Parsons truly are. Admittedly, it’s not easy to see past the guitar front line, a pairing that ranks up there in their embryonic promise and Basque-like uniqueness with the opening salvos of the Allmans’ Dickey Betts and Duane Allman and Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cipollina and Gary Duncan. Then as now, no one sounds like Bluhm and Loiacono together, who arrived speaking their own language, a tongue with both sharpness and woozy slur, blues bite and watery slipperiness – no one had to tell you there were surfers in this bunch. That guitar sound is a big part of what makes Back To The Grotto such a bona fide bong hit masterpiece – a delightful blend of sativa and indica moods.
“Would you like to come down to me from your town above the line?”
Ultimately, it’s the songs that capture one with Grotto, the totality and sheer quality of them forming a most compelling bone structure that they’ve just built and built upon in the intervening years. These tunes remain the spine of their live shows, which attests to their enduring strength and intrinsic role in defining who The Mother Hips are as a band. A debut is usually something shed with time, a larval self bands aren’t that interested in endlessly revisiting but Grotto is different – it is the group’s DNA writ wild and large.
And while I’ve never understood the endless Buffalo Springfield/Byrds critic-comparisons for the Hips, there are plenty of echoes of quality elders on this set. “This Is A Man” is a number Jefferson Airplane would have given Marty Balin’s left nut to have penned, and “Precious Opal” suggests a melding of the Velvet Underground and Derek and the Dominoes – sex wriggling around in the music as one tries to wet the bed all night (????). But there are just as many spots on Grotto where they sound like no one else, notably the happy platypus of “Two Young Queens” with its hickey bookends to a monster groove vamp and the hypnotic singularity “Figure 11”. There’s so much mojo inside these tracks that they still hit audiences with major wallop in concert, where folks punch the “goddamns” in “Turtle Bones” and lift a little out of their skin as a key turnarounds arrives on “Chum” and “Stephanie’s for L.A,” singing along knowingly, empathetically, as Tim notes, “Everybody smiles for the camera and I think that’s kinda strange” or shouting in cracked disgust that spills back on our ourselves, “All the revolutionaries are revolting,” wondering perhaps where we dropped our own freedom flag along the way.
“Some things tear a little town apart, and some things cut right to the heart.”
The incision that this debut makes is a good one…or maybe a fruitful evisceration is more correct. It might not make us lose all the weight we feel but it does leech some of the ill humors and leave us smiling on the edge of a circle, suddenly possessed with the notion of rotation, and eager to return to a grotto we know not where. The horizon seems wider on the other side of this record, and the colors most assuredly richer, deeper, and closer to our outstretched hand. It’s a shockingly good first chapter, and all the more impressive that the band has kept mutating and building upon the story begun here. It should long ago have hit tastemaker lists of the Finest Rock Albums of All Time, but the universe is uncaring and so are the record industry and its aggregate press corps who prefer to have things handed to them in gulp-able, sugary bites. This slab requires one to work their incisors a bit but the meal you get will stick to your ribs for the long haul.