Traveling Back Through The Mother Hips ‘Pacific Dust’ & ‘Behind Beyond’ Albums

As The Mother Hips’ 30th anniversary year begins to wind down, there continues to be so much to be happy about if you are a fan of this band. Late this summer and then in the fall, the band re-released three more of their albums on vinyl. First was 2009’s Pacific Dust, then 2013’s Behind Beyond. This is later catalog material that brings us pretty close to the present day, but the Hips’ and label Blue Rose Music had a trick up their sleeves and a left turn to take with the additional re-release of 2014’s Chronicle Man a compilation of classic but unreleased early Mother Hips’ tracks that dated back to (or even pre-dated in some cases) 1994’s Back To The Grotto. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get after it. 

We’ll start with Pacific Dust. As a reviewer but also as a long-time fan of this band, I’m just going to say it: this is one of if not the best albums The Mother Hips ever put out. It mixes everything that makes this band special into 11 tracks. The opening song, alone, will be counted by many as one of the finest the band ever released. Tim Bluhm’s “White Falcon Fuzz ” with its loping rhythm, fascinating phrasing, and fantastic lyrics is perhaps most easily described as perfection in a song. Bluhm’s work here is dizzying while alternatively catchy to a point that you’ll have the lyrics memorized and tumbling off your tongue in no time.

There is also the title track, “Pacific Dust” that bottles up all that tempestuous hard rock for which this band is capable and explodes it in a single song. Here we can hear the old Grotto roots of the band with a kick of tenacity that can only come with a life lived over the intervening 15 or 16 years. And it needs to be said that Greg Loiacono’s guitar work on “Pacific Dust” is some of the best rock guitar ever committed to tape. Yeah, you read that right. This is one of the songs that makes this album what it is and why it could be considered the best Hips’ record.

But then we have songs like “One Way Out”  and “ Are You Free” that bring forward that beachy, California Soul beauty rock that this band has cultivated and stood on as a cornerstone for so long. But perhaps the best thing about Pacific Dust is Greg Loiacono. While Tim certainly put his stamp on this album (and that is a MASSIVE understatement), I always thought of this record as Greg’s joint and he’s a monster player on this one. 

Loiacono’s four songs on this album are a widely styled collection. From the sweet and sentimental “Lion and the Bull” to the beautiful and band biographical “All In Favor” over to the downright orchestral “Young Charles Ives,” this is Greg’s bustout record and nothing puts an exclamation point on that better than his balls to wall punk rock writing and playing on “Bandit Boy”. His guitar snarls and he shrieks. The song is simultaneously joyful and angsty as hell. It’s like this cathartic bomb that goes off in the middle of side two. I remember the first time I heard it back in 2009, pacing around my living room wondering exactly what the fuck was going on with this song.

I think that is why Pacific Dust tops the list of this band’s releases in my mind. It covers literally every emotion this band covers. It can be in deadly earnest on one song, poignantly beautiful on another, and then damn near mosh pit status on the next. This album will hug you just as easily as it might bust your browline open with a well-placed elbow throw. The band had hit a stride when they went into the Pacific Dust sessions and it showed. Paul Hoaglin was fully cemented as the band’s then bass player and his prowess in basically every level of music-making were awesomely apparent here. And it would be criminal to overlook the stellar keyboard work of Danny Eisenberg on this album as well. Danny had reconnected with the band a year or so prior to these sessions and reentered a collaboration with the Hips’ that has now been consistent for the last eleven years. 

Add to that the production work by David Simon Baker (DSB) who helped this band make one of their finest sounding releases and Pacific Dust is simply an all-around winner deserving of every accolade anyone can throw at it. Oh, and it’s got some seriously bitchin’ cover art. 

Let’s talk about DSB for a minute. DSB was the house engineer at Jackie Greene’s Mission Bells studio for a number of years when it was running. The man is a magician behind a mixing board. He knows how to coax authentic and heartfelt performances out of the musicians with whom he works. He can push them, and keep pushing them until he can commit to tape their vision even if it might not be what they had initially envisioned. This is what he always does when he works with the Hips, their side projects, or other bands. In addition to that, he’s a consummate musician himself and can shred a guitar and lend his own beautiful vocals when asked.

As mentioned, DSB’s work on Pacific Dust is part of what makes that record so special but I think that his prowess comes into full flower on Behind Beyond. In his own words, he said of those sessions, “What I hear is that band having come to fully understand how to utilize that space, a band at the top of its game in terms of ability to create a depth of orchestration with a sort of infinite reveal, a psychedelicatessen combo of gritty rock, and the California Soul think that we all love, not to mention commander level songwriting from both Greg and Tim.” 

It could not be said better. Behind Beyond is poise. It is a band fully formed and creating at the height of crackling talent in every arena that can make a recording great. There is storytelling in the songwriting – science fiction stories of California in the midst of a state in civil war over water and timber rights in the fiery rock and roll of “Jefferson Army ”. There is the slow burn of Blues of personal defeat and struggle for success in “Creation Smiles” and the back and forth of a relationship on the rocks in Loiacono’s “Best Friend In Town”.

But then there is also a jam that (and this is purely a supposition on my part) harkens back to something akin to Bob Weir’s “Weather Report Suite” in “Rose of Rainbows”. It was just prior to these Behind Beyond sessions that Tim and Greg really started getting involved in the Grateful Dead community that coalesced around Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads venue in San Rafael and were able to rediscover just how much they actually had in common with the good ol’ Grateful Dead. What we see with Behind Beyond (and Pacific Dust for that matter) is the dichotomy of a modern Mother Hips. there is that rock grit but there is also the lyrical and harmonious beauty. It was something that began its reveal in a post-hiatus Kiss The Crystal Flake and built to a crescendo in Behind Beyond. Gone is the mad recklessness of youth and present is the poise of a band eyeing the long run. 

But change is inevitable and Paul Hoaglin, for his own personal reasons, had to leave the band after this record and the hole he left as a result of his departure was huge and cannot be understated. A cursory glance at the liner notes on Behind Beyond reveals the depth of that loss. Hoaglin did more than just lay down bass tracks. He also lent his beautiful backing vocals as well as soaring pedal steelwork to a couple of songs (including the inimitable “Song For JB”). Paul really could play just about anything.

In the wake of Hoaglin’s departure, the Hips tapped Scott Thunes (Frank Zappa and a thousand other projects) to fill Paul’s shoes and though they tried for years, the fit just was not right and ended in Thunes’ departure just before the band’s 2018 release Chorus. Thunes’s departure opened the door for Brian Rashap to walk through and now the band has found a lineup that will lead us all into a bright and enduring future. Brian, in addition to his musical abilities, as most any fan will tell you, possesses that indefinable “bro factor”. While Brian’s story is one for another time, suffice it to say that, as a long-time fan of the band himself, he came ready to not only revisit a decade’s deep catalog but he was also one of us. For fans it was literally watching one of our own get the nod for a dream gig and every time we see him up there playing, his victories are ours. But, as I said, that’s a story for another time. 

In the next installment, we will be discussing the rerelease of Chronicle Man that revisits those heady early days in Chico when the sky was the limit and sounds were engaged with the abandon of youth and unlimited potential through unreleased demos and other recordings that chronicle a band on the rise. Then, after that, we get to look at the next chapter – the band’s latest yet to be released album, Glowing Lantern due out in December, 2021. 

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