The Mother Hips formed in a dorm room in the sleepy college town of Chico, Calif., more than 20 years ago. In that time they’ve dealt with the usual rock and roll frills—intra-band drama, substance abuse, lineup changes and getting dropped from a major label (the Hips were on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings in the mid-’90s alongside the Black Crowes, Danzig and Slayer).
It’s a story that could have easily ended a few times, and for much of that time the band has remained criminally out of earshot of those with an ear for Wilco and Blitzen Trapper. But in 2013 the Mother Hips find themselves releasing another record—their eighth full-length, and first in four years—one that sidles up nicely to the rest of band’s damn-near spotless body of work. Since day one, core members and chief songwriters Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono have cunningly borrowed from the best. “We mostly just had the records in our house: Leonard Cohen, Black Sabbath, Gene Clark, Led Zeppelin, Merle Haggard, the Bee Gees,” Bluhm told me years ago. “It came out kind of weird, but we liked it.”
They’ve since moved to San Francisco and have shaped that sound into something they call “California Soul,” which is a perfect descriptor for the Hips’ windows-down, harmony-laden rock. Behind Beyond isn’t a stretch for the four-piece, but rather the band once again harnessing the sounds in their heads—and their record collections.
Opener “Isle Not of Man” sounds like a lost early-’70s gem, resurfacing perfectly taut with Hammond organ rumbling beneath Bluhm and Loiacono’s harmonies and guitars. “Tuffy” unapologetically rolls out its bar-room blues, countered by Bluhm’s slyly dark lyrics. In fact, he’s always been a great lyricist, mixing the fantastical with the confessional. On the dark, psychedelic “Jefferson Army” he pits north versus south in an effort to take California back as Bluhm sings, “we will not leave these mountains without a hail of lead around us.”
It’s one of Behind Beyond’s longest cuts. Although the Mother Hips have simplified their approach since 1992’s Back to the Grotto and its follow-up, 1995’s Part-Timer Goes Full—albums that mix Dead-inspired jams with The Beatles’ pop smarts and early-’70s prog arrangements. And they’ve since only hinted at the full-on bare-bones country of 1998’s terrific Later Days. For most bands, it’s a lot of styles to rein in, but the Mother Hips have effectively done so on their past three records.
In fact, Behind Beyond almost feels like the latest chapter in a trilogy that includes 2007’s Kiss the Crystal Flake and 2009’s Pacific Dust. Who knows what comes next? It’s unlikely the Mother Hips will really shake things up at this point in their career. But they sure have landed on a sweet spot.