The Empire strikes black
Micah P Hinson’s fourth album – the first I’ve heard since his powerful debut ‘Micah P Hinson and the Gospel of Progress‘ – is an accomplished work and the sound of a prolific artist heading for an artistic peak. Produced by alt-rock mixing guru John Congleton, renowned for the dark gloss put on albums by the likes of Anthony & the Johnsons, Modest Mouse and Explosions in the Sky, ‘Micah P. Hinson and the Red Empire Orchestra‘ is somehow both expansive and concise, brooding but melodic. Much is made of Hinson’s troubled past, and I imagine his record label see the value in backing up his cracked baratone with claims of former drug and alcahol addiction, time in prison and, um, chain-smoking, as if to add gravitas to his skinny geek looks. None of those claims of authenticity should really matter when listening to this fine record however, which, like the music of Johnny Cash, is more theatre than fact and all the better for it.
Not as nakedly personal as his debut, Hinson’s latest finds him sounding somehow at home in a more stylised study of Americana. A relatively lush take on folksy alt-country, ‘…Red Empire Orchestra’ dips into Scott Walker-esque melodrama, the border country menace of Calexico, chamber pop and, on ‘We Won’t Have To Be Lonesome’, 1950s surf pop in the mould of Richard Hawley. Similar to (but better than, in my opinion) Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan’s ‘Sunday At Devil Dirt‘, ‘…Red Empire Orchestra’ takes its cues from Lee Hazlewood and, of course, The Man in Black, whose music was always knowingly cinematic, much more interested in American myth than bruised confession.
Highlights for me include the somnambulant Badalamente-baroque of ‘Sunrise Over The Olympus Mons’, which throws a curveball Jim O’Rourke squall of guitar distortion into its reverb heavy brew. The textural abrasion melds blissfully into the song’s Phil Spectoresque swoon. Likewise, a playful lyrical malice adds bite to the sweet chamber pop of ‘I Keep Havin’ These Dreams’, which repeats the title refrain before adding “… that you were all I needed”. Not exactly a statement of undying love. The jaunty, banjo-led ‘When We Embraced’ is as tight and infectious as any song as Hinson has ever written, despite being stripped down to Tom Waits’ trademark skeletal barroom shuffle.
Waits also informs the whiskey-soaked opener ‘Come Home Quickly Darlin”, while it is a Scott Walker influence that adds high theatre to the extraordinary ‘You Will Find Me’. Beginning in Calexico territory – namely some nightime American desert frontier – it suddenly swells into enormous wall-of-sound crescendos and Hinson upping the histrionics, his gravelly tones suggestive of a penitent, dustblown rogue who got “lost on the way home”. It’s rousing, imaginative stuff, but rarely portentous: despite it’s black moods there’s a dark humour here too. Enjoy.