Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Eric Hisaw - "Nature of the Blues" (Saustex Media 2008)

I first ran into Eric Hisaw at the deservedly notorious Hole in the Wall in the mid-90’s. This was, of course, before The Hole became the sterilized, family friendly, soulless thing it is today. The owners/managers took a refreshing interest in giving smaller acts a venue from which to build an audience and actually booked bands that were interesting and challenging. One of those bands was The Lone Star Queens, a bluesy cowpunk (for lack of a better term) outfit fronted by the charismatic, abrasive Hisaw. While I didn’t have the easiest time getting along with him, I fucking loved his band and there was no question that there was some serious talent going on with the songwriting.

The years have passed and both Hisaw’s personality and sound have mellowed and, while the first has made him really easy for me to get along with, more importantly the second has served to really push the nuances and subtleties of his songwriting to the forefront. Eric’s third release, 2006’s The Crosses, was something of a breakthrough for him, providing long deserved recognition both nationally and internationally. Powerful and oozing pathos, it certainly seemed like a hard act to follow.

Well, not only has Eric Hisaw followed The Crosses, he’s clearly surpassed it. Nature of the Blues is a brutally honest, often dark, and very dramatic record. The songs that aren’t obviously autobiographical spin tales of broken people, desolate places, and ends of the line with such a bona fide confidence that it would be impossible to consider that he hadn’t experienced something at least very similar in his life. Story songs, autobiographical or not, can easily become onerous to listen to. Hisaw deftly avoids this with his lyrical skill – those that won’t identify directly with the material will, like reading a Raymond Carver story, get the vicarious thrill of a tour through the dark side of one corner of the American experience, in this case that of the blue collar southwest.

While the first two tracks are by no means weak, the record really takes off on the third track, “Carnival”, an almost existential rumination on feeling trapped in the small town of your childhood and teenage years and the seeming hopelessness of finding a viable way out. It barrels along for the next five songs, each stronger than the next, before downshifting for the slower, more introspective “Tomorrow”. Things pick up again for the last four songs, the standout being “Jake”, which takes the prize for this record. Lines like “I’ve never known success / so boy you do your best / to turn out better than me” are fucking priceless and capture perfectly a bleak kind of hope that is pervasive throughout the record.

Roots rock rarely gets better than this, and it’s a shame that more mediocre artists (I’m not naming any names – enough people in Austin hate me already) take the lion’s share of the local music industry’s attention. I don’t think it will be long before somebody wakes up and notices this powerhouse that they have willfully or accidentally forgotten to give his due. I doubt he cares much – he seems to be doing pretty well outside of Austin. And it would be just like Austin to ignore one of its under-rated best until they’ve moved on.

My recommendation, to Austinites in particular but also to anyone reading this, is to pick this one up. That is if you enjoy interesting and challenging roots rock that provokes an emotional response as opposed to something you can just dance to. There’s already enough of the latter stinking up the scene.

Eric Hisaw’s record release for Nature of the Blues is Friday, July 25th at Jovita’s on S. 1st St., 7:00 PM.

3.5 out of 4 Carnivals

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