(In the manner of The Black Crowes Album Project we’ll be featuring two reviews of the new Trigger Hippy album today. The first is by me and the second by our old friend Don Lane.)
One of my favorite topics, when discussing music with other music obsessives, is the role of the album in modern music. Growing up in the 70s & 80s the album was the standard. Bands put out a new record every year or two. It was your only connection with them, unless you were lucky enough to catch a live show. Some albums were overt concept albums, but most were just a snapshot of a moment in time. The album was an artistic statement – the best 10 songs the artist had to offer at that moment. We’d pore over everything: the songs, the cover art, the liner notes, the labels and the inserts, all in an attempt to experience everything we could about the artist. It was all we had.
In the CD era “albums” became bloated, with most clocking in at 70 minutes and filler becoming all too common. Every album was a double. Do you realize that the Rolling Stones’ “A Bigger Bang” is the same length as “Exile on Main Street”? Guess what? I listened to “Exile on Main Street”. I loved “Exile on Main Street”. “A Bigger Bang” is no “Exile on Main Street”.
So when digital downloads displaced CDs the culture moved from albums to singles, content to buy the song they wanted unbundled from the filler. Or more accurately, the culture returned to buying singles, which is where it all started, with 45s.
And so the album, the perfectly designed and curated expression of an artist, became a relic. But perhaps what made the album so wonderful wasn’t the vinyl itself (prone to scratches and warping) but the length? Perhaps 2x 20 minute sides is the exact right length for a musical journey? Perhaps there was some magic in the creativity required to pick and sequence the exact songs for your release?
The reason I ponder the role of the album in a singles era is because our old friends in Trigger Hippy have just released a full-length debut as a follow-up to their 2013 debut EP. Both are eponymously titled, so I guess we’ll have to go by the old Peter Gabriel rules and call the first one “rainy windshield” and this one “melty face” (or was “scratchy screen” #2? I forget.)
When I first heard that Trigger Hippy was going to release a full-length I thought it was unnecessary. Why not just release EPs on a quarterly basis, promote singles via streaming and radio, and tour, tour, tour?
But after listening to the album, really listening to the album 50+ times, I realized that my thinking was backwards. I was approaching it from a business standpoint, worrying about trends in sales and consumption. I wasn’t thinking about it from a creative perspective, from an artistic perspective. I saw it as a “release” instead of a “statement”. I fell into the dangerous trap of thinking of music as a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than the expression of 5 individuals’ souls.
The reason that Trigger Hippy made this album, and the reason you need to hear this album, is because it’s a wonderfully complete artistic statement. These 11 songs build upon the 4 we heard last year (all 4 songs from the EP are included on the LP). They add extra dimension and texture to our understanding of what this band is all about. They allow the band to paint a full picture of who they are, both as individuals and as a band, and I’m really grateful for that. There’s no filler here and there’s no song that I would cut from the album.
There’s nothing I like more than being proven wrong, and I’m glad to be proven wrong about the vitality of full-length albums in the digital era. There’s clearly a need for albums that are made for the right artistic reasons. There’s always room for art, even if there isn’t always room for product.
The other beautiful thing about a well-crafted album is that there’s an oft-forgotten space between singles and filler. There are always those wonderful songs, those B-sides that may not appeal to everyone, but will most likely be someone’s favorite song. As Trigger Hippy sings in ‘Heartache on the Line’: “it ain’t every thing we asked for but it’s everything we need.” In other words, sometimes we don’t always know what we need, sometimes it’s better to have a little faith and take what is given and be open to the unexpected. And maybe what we’ve lost in the modern singles era is an appreciation for the great songs that will never be singles.
I’ve written before about Trigger Hippy so I don’t need to spend much space talking about their virtuosity as musicians. Individually they’re all amazing players. Steve Gorman is the kind of drummer you want to build a band around, playing exactly what the song requires. Nick Govrik is a killer bass player, propelling the songs, plus he sings damn well (which has to be intimidating in this band). Tom Bukovac is my kind of guitar player, who know how to attack without overplaying. Joan Osborne has a seductive voice of strength and beauty. Jackie Greene is a prodigy on guitar, keys and harp, plus he’s got a great, soulful voice.
But what matters most is how they play together and how they balance their individual strengths. They’re clearly a band that respects and loves each other. They’re having a musical conversation that we’re lucky enough to be privy to.
The album consists entirely of originals and the songs are universally solid musically and lyrically. And while we’ve known for years that Jackie Greene can write a great tune, the real revelation on this album is Nick Govrik. When listening to the Nick songs I think of none other than Gene Clark. Like Gene, Nick writes songs that are deceptively simple but contain layers and multitudes. Some writers possess an innate skill to comment on the human condition, to turn phrases that ring true, that demonstrate a depth and wisdom that belie their accessibility.
Thematically, the song cycle speaks of love and loss, but from a mature perspective. These are songs written from the perspective of experience, of relationships of substance and time spent together. While there’s still plenty of passion there’s also a sense of satisfaction in understanding the importance of fidelity and living life together, of raising a family and weathering the challenges of life. This is rock and roll, but it’s not teenage lust or young adult angst. This is rock and rock with depth.
“Rise Up Singing” is a perfect opening number for the album. It’s like they dropped the soul gauntlet, announcing what you’ll hear – sweet organ, nice guitar (that little strum throughout is just perfect), supportive rhythm, and two intertwined voices. It’s the kind of song that feels fresh and timeless and is a beautiful invitation to the record.
“Turpentine” funks it up, with those twin guitars and that delicious Byrds-y chime in the chorus. (Please note that everyone loves chiming Byrds-y guitars. REM made a career copping that sound).
“Heartache on the Line” is a phenomenal mid-tempo ballad. I’ve loved this song from the first time I heard it and still can’t get enough of it. It’s tasteful, it’s subdued and it’s gorgeous. The lyrics are wonderful. And the fade out is aces.
“Cave Hill Cemetery” is a country blues tune with a gritty, dirty, fantastic lead vocal by Joan. The organ and guitar are sweet throughout but this song is all about Joan.
“Tennessee Mud” is a nice rocker but what really makes it is one little touch – Jackie’s little bridge at 1:50 – that just takes the song to the next level. Trigger Hippy is full of those little touches and moments that really help a tune reach lift-off and Jackie really brings it this time.
“Pretty Mess” is exhibit A in why I compare Nick Govrik to Gene Clark. How can something so simple be so beguiling? How can something so sweet be so affecting? Jackie and Joan both deliver perfect lead vocals. This is a truly special song.
“Pocahantas” is another rocker, this one with a funky “Trampled Underfoot” vibe. It’s a fun tune, featuring another strong Joan vocal, and some nice solos.
“Dry County” is the tour de force. It’s got the build up & release structure of a “classic” grunge tune but with a pure Americana vibe. The band shows incredible restraint on this tune, taking it slow and resisting the urge to explode until the right time. And when Jackie’s harp finally comes in at 4:30, he drops a perfect riff and the pay-off is intense. This is the most epic tune on the album.
“Nothing New” features…cowbell…and a robust workout for the guitars. It’s a rocker with twin lead vocals by Jackie & Joan. It’s amazing how well their voices mesh together, whether alternating leads, doubling leads or singing harmony.
“Ain’t Persuaded Yet” is another countrified blues, with a spooky vibe and a nice tale told by Joan. Nick lays down some really sweet basslines throughout, and this song has a nice sense of atmosphere. Tom’s guitar solo is a great example of how to use a solo to say something rather than just blasting out notes.
“Adelaide” is the perfect closing number for the album because it makes you want to start the whole thing again. Another Nick tune, he delivers an emotional vocal backed by Joan and some real nice banjo picking. This is another powerful ballad that burrows inside your skull, connecting with you, demanding your attention.
“Trigger Hippy” is a perfect example of what a great album can do. It can take you on a journey, alternating affecting ballads with energizing rockers and soulful blues. It can show you all of the dimensions of a band, highlighting the various talents of some of the best players and singers in the world. It can reveal heretofore-unknown talents, like Nick Govrik’s absolutely stellar songwriting. It can give you songs that will stay with you forever – songs that will attach themselves to future memories and become an indelible part of your life. Most surprisingly, it can restore your faith in the “music” part of the music business.
“Trigger Hippy” is definitely art that I want.
Final Grade: A
“Trigger Hippy,” the self-titled debut from the modern day supergroup founded by Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, is the feel good album of the year.
Over the past three years, Gorman has recruited an all-star cast including fellow Crowe Jackie Greene, smoky-voiced Joan Osborne, Nashville guitar hero Tom Bukovac and bassist Nick Govrik. These are serious musicians who are clearly having fun with a strong set of road-tested, well-crafted songs finally properly released.
The uplifting “Rise Up Singing” gets things off to a great start. Gorman swings and the band gets out of the way of Greene and Osborne, whose harmonies go down easy. It’s a throwback sing-a-long that surely would have been a massive radio hit back when people, you know, listened to the radio.
“Turpentine” follows with the band in full throat. It’s the album’s best rocker, featuring Bukovak and Greene’s twin lead guitars supported by a driving, powerful rhythm section.
“Heartache On The Line” continues the strong start, one of several stunning ballads that surprisingly represent the heart of the record.
“Tennessee Mud” offers a hint of the band’s live prowess, stretching out to include a 70s vocal break you have to hear to fully appreciate. Every band member gets a chance to shine by the end of the tune. You just don’t want it to end.
Minor missteps like the white-funk of “Cave Hill Cemetery” and cheesy lyrics to “Dry County” seem – to this listener – to be beneath a band of this ability, but are redeemed by stellar musicianship and unapologetic performances.
Side B isn’t as consistently great as the first half, but it’s bookended by the stunning ballads “Pretty Mess” and “Adelaide.” Govrik takes lead vocals on the closer. It’s so good I had to double-check it wasn’t a Band cover.
In fact, Govrik just might be Trigger Hippy’s secret weapon. His songwriting is a revelation. But he is often mentioned as an afterthought in the quintet’s press clippings. This isn’t surprising, considering Gorman’s legendary career, Bukovak’s guitar brilliance, Osborne’s stature as one of the era’s great female rock vocalists and the irrepressible Jackie Greene, who should be a superstar given his frontmanship and multi-instrumental chops.
Trigger Hippy sounds like a group that has been around forever. Hopefully they will be.
Final Grade: A-minus