David Hillman
"Americana Hour"
by Johanna J. Bodde


"Americana Hour"
(VAV Records)


This must be the best cover art of the year this far: a composition of antique radio, ashtray and lipstick stained cigarette stubs, vintage alarmclock, glass of whiskey and more. Also David J. Hillman's photograph, looking like your nice nextdoor neighbor in black sweatshirt and eyeglasses, but definitely the type who will blow you away by surprise once he sets foot on a stage. "David Hillman, former guitarist / front man for The Slow Boys and The Goods, is a Seattle native who is always buried in some kind of music project, be it playing in the soothing Cassandra Speaks, or stretching out in the semi-secret recording venture Twelve Times A Year. Sometimes it's whacky improvisational experiments that always seem to seep out of his basement studio on certain weeknights, or sometimes someone just wants him to record their album. If you let him, he'll talk your ear off about tube amps, vintage church organs, ribbon microphones, and anolog tape decks. He loves all kinds of music, but really gets going when Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, or John Lee Hooker come up. There's usually some kind of fun brewing at his house and whether it's in his living room or out at a show, live performances breathe with personality, verve, and old-school showmanship", according to the info sheet. I guess I was right there.
And I just love that album title "Americana Hour". So what can we expect? David writes: "I suppose you could say that this album is what you might get, if Bobby Bare Jr. and Jon Spencer decided to make a record together. It's rootsy and moves from style to style while keeping a common thread or two. There are some indie-rock tracks, some alt-country, some back porch pickin', a delta blues tune, and songs brewed from a hootenanny of musical persuasions." Although I'm not a big fan of Bare Jr. -I could listen to him for about three songs, live in concert- David gets the benefit of the doubt!

The record starts out with sturdy uptempo guitarrock indeed, in "Vexations", but steals my heart immediately, when the song holds back in the powerpop chords, adorned with backing vocals, acoustic guitar and percussion. Charming... David's voice is a very pleasant one to listen to, strong, slightly hoarse and a little out of breath at appropriate times, but never forgetting the grit & gravel. Back to midtempo in "Celladore", featuring more wonderful guitarwork, David also plays a "Leslie guitar" here..., still an interesting effect! He certainly has a whole collection of guitars, inventively placed in a circle for the tray photograph! Smart lyrics: "I watched my teardrops / Bounce off the sidewalk / And run away to the sea." Same goes for intense acoustic guitar track "I've Said It Before", that seamlessly follows: "I've loved you since that day I / Saw you burn down that old hotel / When you asked for a light / I thought it was for your cigarette / Not yet you said / It's for this dynamite."

The disc barely leaves me time to catch my breath, as the perfect alt-country song "Lake Matilda" already arrives. Good rhythm, thanks to very good -versatile- drummer Ed Portnow. Fiddle and mandolin. Very best lyrics of the CD can be heard in "I Can't Wait To See You There". A stomach can go from feeling like a firefly to feeling like cold cold coffee, while waiting for trains, from Tucson arriving at four, or to Vegas, Reno, Eureka and the golden shore, maybe tomorrow's train or the next Santa Fe: "Your letter was a month behind / And it wasn't very clear / Short and sweet in a rambling way / Still it was nice to hear / And I can't wait to see you there." Wow... All of this on a slow melody with gorgeous slide guitar.

Some blues-influenced songs follow, uptempo "INKY" brings in a swinging saxophone, "Josephine" fades in with congas, exploding into Jon Spencer-like bluesrock and we hear a "tack piano" (imagine the sound from a black&white movie, situated in New Orleans) on "The Cowgirl With The Fifty Cats". Yes, lyrics with various funny turns and winks. "Walk Away" features the electric (slide-) guitar in bluesrock with intelligent variations in volume level, while David gives "Darlene" the stripped-down treatment: right-in-your-face vocal, very impressive slide guitarplaying and Ed Portnow's footstomp. This is the delta blues tune he was referring to, I bet he will also like the music of our Dutch talent Little Louis a lot! Then for something totally different: a sweet country-lullaby ("It's a little late for a gunfight..."), two acoustic guitars, two voices (Mark Rachuna singing great harmony vocals), fiddle and piano. Last and literally mindblowing song: "On My Mind (Murder)". Two verses of David's vocal, accompanied by acoustic guitar: "I'm thinking about the two of you entwined / With murder on my mind / The train trestle shakes my floor and / Makes me drop my wine..." The mood is set, then the guitar changes into another key and all guns start blasting: the energetic drums, the overdubbed six vocal choir singing a furious la-la-la and the screaming electric guitars... And then after a while everything eases back to quiet. A whole lot of empty four second tracks later the choir comes back, with more emphasis on the female vocals, echoing, like ocean waves. Speaking of building up a track..., smartest thing I've heard in a long time!

So, this a real Americana hour, even up to those little "old radio" noises between some tracks. A few engineers at our modern-day radio stations think it makes starting in harder, but that's a minor detail. "An authentic record that traverses city and country, delta and plain." Strongest point: the well-composed songs, David knows exactly what he is doing when he changes the tempo, there's also a good balance between quiet and loud. Every song is different with yet another instrumentation, guitars always important, some tracks even find themselves between the musical styles we already know. Sturdy & energetic bluesy Americana might be the best overall-label though. I actually like David Hillman much better than Bare Jr. & Spencer together! Jack White was also mentioned as a comparison, I agree more with that one. Let's not forget the very good players David gathered around him! The album has been recorded in eight days at Stone Gossard's Studio Litho in Seattle and the co-producer / engineer was Floyd Reitsma (that's a last name originating here up North in The Netherlands!), he worked earlier with The Supersuckers, The Long Winters and Audioslave. Oh, and speaking of last names: David is not related to old Byrd Chris Hillman, in case you were wondering. I love the picture in the booklet where David sits on the studio floor, back turned towards the camera, guitar in his arms, obviously lost in the music...

Written by Johanna J. Bodde, June 2007.