Revisiting The Mother Hips’ Mid Era & Overlooked ‘Green Hills of Earth’ and ‘Kiss The Crystal Flake’ LPs

The best part of your favorite band re-releasing its entire catalog must be the long look back – those fleeting moments of vivid recollection that only music can trigger. In a split second, you are rocketed back to the living room of an apartment or house and you’re 20, friends sit around with beers in hand and maybe a bong on the coffee table while an acrid haze hangs above your heads. For that second you are with them, laughing about something only that crew of friends would understand. It is amazing what memories a song, or even a riff, can drag out of the dusty archives of your life. 

This past installment of The Mother Hips’ 30th Anniversary vinyl re-releases brought us Green Hills of Earth and Kiss The Crystal Flake.

So it must be not only for the fans but also The Mother Hips. as these old recordings are brought back on vinyl and shipped out to stereo systems across the country. By 2001, The Hips had run the whole gamut of a band’s lifespan in less than a decade.

First, they were the young psychedelic whippersnappers from Chico roaring onto the scene to deliver mind-bending rock that would have made Hendrix lend an ear. And with the recognition of their first albums, The Mother Hips streaked like a comet across their musical universe only to begin to burn up as they reentered the atmosphere. Only, they didn’t burn up. Those that needed it found the help necessary to right the ship and steam on through deeper and more challenging creative waters. They released a self-funded and self-promoted country-inspired record that reflected their lives. It was quieter, more contemplative, way more acoustic and grounded as they regained their footing. Once that footing was found, however, it was time to re-engage and get back in the studio for their fifth studio LP, 2001’s Green Hills of Earth (the title was taken from a short story by Robert A. Heinlen). 

Green Hills is a major departure from 1998’s Later Days. Where that album was a nod to their love of country music, Green Hills moved in a new direction. It was slick and quick and indie to its core. The songs are punchy and scoff at the longer psychedelic explorations of years past. Similar to Later Days, however, this record was self-funded too. Here was a band still adrift from a major label and steadily, irreversibly climbing upward despite the obstacles in its path. Critically listening to it now, this record is a daring jump. It almost completely detaches from the band’s past moorings – almost. It was clearly recorded for wider consumption. It was recorded for the radio. 

That is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just a break from the band’s MO. With Green Hills, The Mother Hips may be seeking some recognition. There are a number of standouts here that had grown and matured over the years on the live stage. Side one’s “Take Us Out” and “Pull Us All Together,” are strong examples. “Pull Us All Together,” still very much a setlist favorite, is a rocker with strong emotion behind it. It was written at the time of the Cary Stayner murders that took a beloved and well-known Hips’ fan, Joie Armstrong, who was then a naturalist working in Yosemite National Park when she was just 26. Bluhm’s lyrics relate the loss: 

The smashing of a pretty pearl.

The murder of a well-liked girl.”

Not every song on the record is such a launch into Indie waters, however. Tim Bluhm’s “Channel Island Girl” and  Greg Loiacono’s “Del Mar Station” fall squarely into the classic Hips’ California Soul sound. In “Channel Island Girl” we see images of perfectly sculpted glassy waves as two surfers, in love, navigate a summer romance. And Del Mar may be the best song on the whole record. In it, Loiacono penned a classic that has endured over the years to become not just a fan favorite but probably one of the most recognizable songs in the Hips’ canon and begs to be a singalong with that “hey hey hey!” part. 

On the other hand, there is a short slide into psychedelia. “Such A Thing” replete with its sitar riff and rocking leads; could have come out of the Haight Ashbury era just as easily as anything by Steppenwolf. “Singing Seems to Ease Me” brings anthemic guitar rock albeit not near the power that the band could bring with this song onstage. And probably the biggest rockers of all, “Smoke” and “Rich Little Girl” are both the perfect examples of how the Green Hills sessions distilled down these live monsters into what might be more digestible versions ready to be gobbled up by hordes of not yet exposed listeners. And therein is where the album loses some luster. In distilling the songs down to their album versions, they lost power. And, no, that does not always have to be the case. 

While the record was picked up by Future Farmer Records in San Francisco, the label failed to properly and effectively promote the effort and where there had been hope for a breakthrough, the album just did not crack the surface. At the end of the day, Green Hills of Earth’s accomplishment is that it reminds us of what this band can do. This record was a primer of the time and surely led those who found The Mother Hips through its grooves into the deeper and far more rocking depths of the band’s live experience. And It might not be too far a reach to say that there was writing on the wall here.

Within a year of the album’s release, Isaac Parsons left the band to spend more time with his family and then, in October, 2002, on The Mother Hips fan message board, The Grotto, Greg announced that he would be taking an “indefinite hiatus.” Fans took a collective heaving sigh, wondered what it all meant and clamored for details. Ultimately it was what Greg said it was, a hiatus – a nearly two year break that allowed some room to breathe. But The Mother Hips came back. 

The shows started to return in 2004 and then came a new record, a four song EP entitled Red Tandy (2005). Tandy was a return to the roots of the band but in a more tempered approach. They returned to the organic sound that was far more representative of what they sounded like in the reals. The thing that was different, this time, was that they had Paul in the band.

Just before they had gone on hiatus, bassist Paul Hoaglin, joined the band to fill the space that Isaac had left. Hoaglin, by any definition, is a secret weapon. He can play just about anything and play it very well (let alone SLAY a bass guitar) and sing beautifully. Paul had always been a strong presence in the Hips universe, producing Back To The Grotto, for example. With Paul on the bottom end and being availed of his talents in the studio, The Mother Hips were not only back, but they were in perhaps even better shape than before. These guys were rested and ready to rip. They played shows when they wanted, reignited the creative spark and began making new music that would become 2007’s Kiss the Crystal Flake (KTCF). 

Tandy and KTCF are companion records, they walk arm in arm and should be taken together and by 2007 these two albums victoriously squelched any concerns of the band’s staying power. Like Tandy, KTCF is a return to the band’s psychedelic roots but as a collection, it is a little closer to the poise of Shootout than it is the abandon of Back To The Grotto.

Side one is beautifully incongruous and it works that way. The mystery of Bluhm’s science fiction-sounding “Mission In Vain” and Loiacono’s wailing guitar on that opening track is juxtaposed a couple of songs later against the bouncing, poppy “No Name Darrel” which was unlike anything Hips fans had never heard. “Darrel” is unapologetic pop but not for radio play’s sake. The deep, psychedelic imagery of Loiacono’s “Wicked Tree” is a goosebump-inducing acid-drenched Shel Silverstein poem where the beautiful (if often overlooked).

“Let Somebody” sounds so much like a Bee Gees ballad that you’d think The Bee Gees wrote it. Listening to it now, it is fair to say that KTCF might be the most underrated album in the band’s catalogue. There are so many great songs on this record. “TGIM ” with its imagery of playing hooky from work to spend a little more time on the coast to dig on a beach fire speaks to every person that hears it. We can smell the wood smoke and the cooling sand born on the breaker-driven breezes. It is a quintessential California anthem that should be the state song. 

On side two, sandwiched between Tim’s “TGIM” and “Not So Independent”, is an utterly indescribable Loiacono bomb entitled “White Hills”. “White Hills” is the part of the album in which all fucks were clearly thrown out of the studio and Greg was loosed to run untethered within the confines of a pop song. The man literally shrieks through the end of the tune, blowing off some serious steam. And that is why this album is special. It’s as much a skin shedding as it is a declaration of return. There is something so cathartic and celebratory about it.

But let’s talk about Bluhm’s “Not So Independent”. This song is its own masterclass in songcraft. The opening imposing, crunchy guitar riffs play counterpoint to lyrics that bring the listener to a beach scene on the 4th of July. People are together, enjoying one another’s company on the sand under fireworks. Again, a very rootsy, traditionally California scene for which people all over the world would give their “I” teeth to be included. Here Bluhm revisits another universally known struggle of enjoying fleeting moments of freedom while another Monday’s return to work looms. 

Then we have the funky strut of “White Headphones”-  a song that singularly defines all the qualities that make The Mother Hips the best band you haven’t heard. It’s this song that hooks the passive fan and makes him or her become the rabid arbiter of this music. This is the song where you stop the house music at a party with the scrape of a record needle to say, “Check this out, you guys gotta hear this…” and within minutes everyone is bobbing their heads to the beat. Then, the record drops into “Time Sick Son of A Grizzly Bear”. This is a historical narrative of California history chronicling the destruction of our beloved state by a resistless tide of outsiders in the most rocking way possible. The tension and frustration in this song would impress John Bonham. But they don’t leave us there.

Instead, we are gently waved goodbye from Greg crooning out “In This Bliss”. There is a Beatles influence here that stems mainly from the interplay between guitars and horns and a Sgt. Pepper-esque guitar lead. And that’s it. That’s why this album is so great. We hear influences, we even hear parts of songs that we can point to and say, “Oh that sounds just like . . . “ but as soon as we are about to say who we think it sounds like we have to stop because the band takes a turn that could only be their own. 

Kiss The Crystal Flake is not given the credit it is due. You need to go listen to it again or for the first time with fresh ears and listen closely. When you do, you might very well agree that it should stand as one of the most important recordings that this band has committed to tape. 

As it stands now, we are six re-releases in. Next up we will find ourselves ensconced in 2009’s Pacific Dust, perhaps the very best record of The Mother Hips discography. Until then, thanks, as always, to Blue Rose Music for getting this wonderful vinyl out to fans. Just a reminder that the culmination of The Mother Hips’ 30th Anniversary will be an entirely new record released at the end of the year. As the post-Covid shows are announced and we continue with so much more music throughout the year, It feels great to say that we have so much to look forward to! 

Top portrait by ND Koster and street portraits by Jay Blakesberg

 

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3 Responses

  1. I just bought a copy of Kiss the Crystal Flake recently. I’m a Mother Hips fan but I had never heard that album before, and it blows me away!

    Green Hills of Earth happens to be the first Hips album I ever bought – now I pretty much have them all.

    Thanks for the great review!

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