One of Rick Rubin’s biggest mistakes, aside from forswearing the razor, was dropping The Mother Hips. The California band’s Pacific boogie rock was just beginning to take flight on 1995’s Part-Timer Goes Full and ’96’s Shootout, both released on Rubin’s American Recordings label. But the band soon found itself lost amid the shuffle of bigger shoes; American bungled Shootout’s promotion, then unceremoniously bumped the Hips off its roster. The band never lost their mojo — in fact, they later returned from hiatus signed to a lesser imprint and singing the best songs they’d ever written. Rubin dropped the Hips, but he certainly didn’t stop them.
The recordings on Chronicle Man are treasures from those prolific sessions on American, having been shelved and discovered only recently in a Los Angeles basement. They could have been unearthed 30 years earlier, and you’d never tell the difference. This is the sound of the band at its most Zeppelin-esque, and, as a bunch of anachronistic outtakes, it’s most varied. Picture lead guitarist Greg Loiacono in a pair of bell-bottoms, his guitar coiling and snapping like a feral cat atop the freight train galumph of the album’s closer, “Rich Little Girl”. Or how about the title track, where drummer Mike Wofchuck takes Bo Diddley’s signature beat and strangles it, and vocalist Tim Bluhm claws his way back toward fading youth? Yes, the song is an obvious throwaway, but it’s also the kind of hysteria the Hips needed to expel from their system if they were ever going to write something better. There are miniature insights, too; ever the conversational lyricist, Bluhm shows here that he can (or could) do straight confession just as well: “I’m scared of 25/ Because I have felt more alive than this,” he admits.
Despite the weighty sum of the record’s elements, transitional sections of a few songs feel unfinished, as if a keyboard or overdubbed guitar part should have jumped in to fill a void. That’s the case in “Headache to Headache”, an otherwise adequate take on Black Crowes grit, where the first minute can’t seem to find its legs (they should have asked Crowes vocalist and good friend Chris Robinson for help). And “Loup Garou”, even with its saw-toothed psychedelia, only shifts into drive once it’s hijacked by an unexpectedly funky midsection. Then things duck back into the haze, only to be joined by — trumpet? Sometimes the band would do well to leave the additions out and focus on their core.
But for a dusty box filled with drafts and guesses at the future, Chronicle Man entertains. If these cuts had made it onto either finished album, they’d have nestled in just fine. Now, at the very least, they warrant a second look.
Essential Tracks: “The Flood”, “Rich Little Girl”