California Dreaming 

The Mother Hips take a quiet stroll through the history of Cali with Green Hills of Earth.

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Tim Bluhm is done with pictures for a while. His band, the Mother Hips, just finished a five-hour photo shoot, trying to come up with some art for the quartet’s new disc, Green Hills of Earth, due out early next year. There were hundreds of poses, maybe a different outfit or two, the word “cheese” over and over. It’s enough to drive anyone a little batty. “We looked pretty silly the whole time,” Bluhm admits.

But the photos are the final touches, the wrapping paper on months of labor. The Hips have been working on Green Hills for well over a year, hopping from studio to studio, house to house, slowly recording the disc. The result: the album the Hips have always been striving for, finally completing the stretch between Gram Parsons-era Byrds and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris.

Now the Hips want to make sure people hear it. The first words out of Bluhm’s mouth on the record are, “If it calms us down, then it’s good/If it amps us up, then it should/And now we give it to you.” The song, “Given for You,” is sort of a mild manifesto, or at least an open invitation to take a listen. But it definitely sums up the band’s attitude toward the record. Green Hills is the Hips’ first attempt in years at getting some widespread exposure. The group’s last album, 1998’s Later Days, was a self-released affair. While the disc was a critical fave and embraced by fans, there was no way it was going to score the band the kind of attention the Hips’ previous three albums did. They were all released on American Recordings and given the major-label push, but when American was bought out by Sony in ’96, the Hips were cut loose.

Yet the band didn’t let a little thing like getting dropped slow them down. Even during the lean times, the Hips have never really changed how they’ve done things, always writing music as rich as Napa Valley soil and touring virtually non-stop. “We’re just hooked on the lifestyle,” the guitarist-vocalist says. “We could have stopped. But if we didn’t do this we’d have to get regular jobs. Nobody wants that. This is our lifestyle and we like it.”

The Hips just want to make that lifestyle a little easier to lead. It’s part of the reason the group has now hooked up with the small San Francisco indie Future Farmer Records. The Hips are hoping the label will get Green Hills the kind of exposure it deserves. But Bluhm admits that he’s still a little cautious about getting screwed by a label again.

“We’re definitely leery of record labels, but you have to do it,” he says. “There’s a certain satisfaction doing it on your own and being an independent band. It’s a romantic way of doing it. And it feels good to do it on your own terms. But it’s also frustrating because you need help to sell records, get in stores, and get your music in peoples’ hands.”

Green Hills is worth the risk. The record is a quiet stroll through the history of California, hitting everything from the surf-soaked harmonies of the Beach Boys to the country-smoked flavor of Robbie Robertson and The Band. But while Brian Wilson methodically charted out his harmonies and The Band considered country less of an accent than a building block, the Hips have found a way to make it all sound natural, easy and never overpowering. Like the best studio moments of the Dead, the Hips just let it flow, adding in whatever they need at the moment—be it rock, folk, funk, psychedelia or whatever.

Case in point: “Pull Us All Together.” The track could easily have been a tie-dyed peace/love anthem back in the day, full of fuzzy feedback, casual hooks and simplistic lines like, “One good thing the bad things do is pull us all together.” Bluhm’s voice arm wrestle’s with Greg Loiacono’s for control of the melody, while their guitars take turns wandering off from the basic strum-strum structure of it all. But like everything the Hips do, there’s something that makes it sound more than just a throwback to the acid tests.

“We’ve always tried to stay uncontrived,” Bluhm says. “We don’t worry about what genre we’re going to fit in or try to make sure whatever we do can be played on the radio. We’ve just always wanted to make sure we progressed as a band. I think we’ve done that with this record. It’s just a little more ambitious than the others, and I think it shows.”

Bluhm is anxious to see how the rest of the world takes the disc. He’s got a few months to wait yet. So for now he has to be content to get back out on the road and test the material live. He’s just hoping he doesn’t get the same response he got a few years ago from one fan.

“We were playing this spooky space-rock song, and one of our fans—he was really drunk—got up on-stage and starting screaming into the mic. I was kind of into it, but security at the club rushed the stage and kicked him out of the club. Well, he thought it would be cool to sneak back into the club, so he climbed into a second-story window. Turns out the window went into someone’s house behind the club. They called the cops and he got arrested.”

The Mother Hips play the Zephyr Club, 301 S. West Temple (355-CLUB), Friday, Dec. 15, 9:30 p.m.

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Jeff Inman

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