Blake Mills, ‘Heigh Ho’ – Album Review
You know that record that every artist wants to make? The one on which they have no inhibitions and follow no conventional guidelines and they just do what they've always wanted to do after years and years (maybe decades) of following a strict musical template? At the age of 27, Blake Mills has created that record.
'Heigh Ho,' Mills' second full-length album, is 12 tracks of mercurially complex musical arrangements that serve to support the singer-songwriter's evocative vocals.
Mills might be an artist who hasn't flown across your radar, but you're likely familiar with his work; in 2010 he discreetly released his debut LP, 'Break Mirrors,' and before that, he founded the indie rock outfit Simon Dawes (which would later evolve into Dawes) with Taylor Goldsmith. Throughout his short but already prolific career, Mills has served as a session musician with the likes of Conor Oberst, the Avett Brothers and Lana Del Rey, and has produced several albums, such as Sara Watkins' 'Sun Midnight Sun' and Sky Ferriera's EP, 'Ghost,' not to mention Alabama Shakes' follow-up to their critically-acclaimed debut, 'Boys & Girls.'
Even with this remarkable background and support from fellow musicians -- in an interview with Rolling Stone, Eric Clapton called Mills "the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal" -- the profound artist has remained relatively unknown.
With 'Heigh Ho,' that will hopefully all change.
Recorded in Los Angeles' iconic Ocean Way studios -- in a room designed specifically for Frank Sinatra and utilized by artists like Bob Dylan and Ray Charles -- 'Heigh Ho' features several collaborations with some of Mills' musical heroes, like Jim Keltner, Don Was and Fiona Apple (the latter duets with Mills on 'Seven' and 'Don't Tell Our Friends About Me').
Mills wastes no time with fluff tracks as the album opens with 'If I'm Unworthy,' a song that constantly feels like it should head in one direction, but the conductor takes it in another -- and for good reason. Followed by 'Cry to Laugh,' the dynamic musicianship of Mills is on display as the seemingly chill tune builds to a raucous climax about two minutes in.
Even when the record features uplifting music (which is often), Mills has a way with layering poignant thoughts throughout with his lyrics. This talent is evident in the catchy (and aforementioned) 'Don't Tell Our Friends About Me' when he sings, "I could sleep on the couch if you want me to / I can be a good dog and just sit with you." You can hear Mills' heart break as he gets to the bridge and laments, "I know I f---ed up, I know I f---ed up / But please, baby, don't tell all our friends about me."
With the short interlude 'Silence Is Sincerity,' Mills perfectly leads into 'Half Asleep' -- a track that has the singer sounding eerily like a modern-day Elliott Smith. And even when he steps away from the microphone, he leaves nothing to be desired. With the nearly eight-minute instrumental track, 'Shed Your Head,' Mills and his band noodle away without ever garnering a drop of listener fatigue or disinterest.
As Mills puts it, "The goals for 'Heigh Ho' were songs, sonics, and capturing performance." In a world saturated with predictable and generic music, 'Heigh Ho' is anything but.