The High Road Meets the Low End: Blake Mills’ “Heigh Ho”

Will Schube can see through you like Skyy Vodka Blake Mills’ music hinges on restraint and precision. Mills is just about perfect at finding the elusive middle ground between these poles and...
By    October 28, 2014


Will Schube can see through you like Skyy Vodka

Blake Mills’ music hinges on restraint and precision. Mills is just about perfect at finding the elusive middle ground between these poles and striking for gold. His best tracks start slowly and simply, hinting at something grand and bombastic, and then pull the carpet out from under his own feet. On Break Mirrors, Mills’ tremendous debut full-length, he veered towards the excessive. His songs moved towards a satisfaction via the kitchen sink approach. This time around, with the equally excellent Heigh Ho, Mills is far more interested in the teasing out of subtleties than he is the immediate pleasure of catharsis. Defending the merits of the CD, Mills had this to say regarding Heigh Ho: “…the experience of this music is richer on CD [versus vinyl] and here’s why; so much of this record has to do with extreme bottom end and detail in the top or ‘air’. When you master to vinyl you immediately sacrifice those two areas.” It’s not often you hear an artist as sonically-minded as Mills celebrate the aural qualities of CDs, but this quote immediately situates Heigh Ho in an arena of restraint; the album is as much about what is heard as it is what’s not. While Break Mirrors felt like an album made for the hill-y terrain of a sunset drive through Topanga Canyon, Heigh Ho is built for contemplation upon arriving at an unplanned location. It thrives in openness and space—resistant to enclosure while at the same time remaining remarkably precise.

Heigh Ho begins with “If I’m Unworthy,” a powerful meditation on the unequal scales of love—the inherent abuse when a relationship isn’t perfectly balanced. Sings Mills, “Look what your love can do/What if I’m unworthy of/The power I own/Over you.” Mills’ voice is yearning and powerful, and his skillful precision on the guitar immediately establishes the sort of creativity he brings to the instrument. Mills begins his subtle play with bombast by way of a sort of breakdown that resembles a poisoned cartoon show scored by a demented orchestra. The symphonic swell is perfectly askew, leading back into Mills’ meditative existentialism: “With you/Life’s not long enough.” “Cry to Laugh” is a swing dance of depression—the bouncing bass line seemingly mocks Mills’ morose delivery. Mills has a knack for expansive choruses; the influence of Jon Brion brings an added dimension to “Cry to Laugh,” as the string swells resemble one of Brion’s emotive film scores.

Mills does despair perfectly. His voice is naturally somber yet his compositions are engaging enough to keep the listener from being bogged down in this world of heartbreak and triumph. “Just Out of View” plays on this nicely, with a thundering floor tom carrying downcast guitar work into a world slightly less gray. “Seven,” one of the album’s collaborations with Fiona Apple, carries this aesthetic as well, masking joy in a sort of somber solitude. Mills’ guitar yelps and moans—hinting at an ecstatic breaking point, that (as is so often the case on Heigh Ho) never fully delivers itself. Mills has such an inherent grasp of texture, a penchant for the perfect guitar tone, the most satisfying snare drum crack. Heigh Ho seems less interested in perfect song craft than in chasing down the perfect tone in hopes of creating the most innovative compositions possible. This results in an album both approachable and confused—alienating/alienated and inviting all at once.

Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me,” the album’s fifth track and Mills’ best song to date, is the album’s dividing point. He uses its accessibility as a break between two halves as trying as they are engaging. Heigh Ho isn’t an easy record; Mills asks as much of his listener as he asks of himself. Each track on the album introduces new sounds that are both likeable and unsettling. “Gold Coast Sinking” follows this blueprint, and showcases another track littered with Jon Brion’s fingerprints. The track marries disparate influences and is able to turn a verse of abstraction into a chorus that coalesces into something grand in scope. “Gold Coast” even boasts some Spaghetti Western influences, which is the quickest way to my heart outside of a live score to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The second half of Heigh Ho isn’t necessarily lazy, but it’s more concerned with establishing a certain texture than the album’s already obsessive first half. “Silence is Sincerity” is nothing more than a tender soundscape, which unfortunately brings the album’s momentum to a momentary halt. “Three Weeks in Havana” is Mills’ lighthearted take on the Beach Boys, as he sings, “I married Suzanna/In a place called Havana.” There’s a lingering shuffle to the track—content planting itself in the background and staying there for the track’s entirety. “Before It Fell” is the second half standout, featuring an infectious guitar line and sparse percussion reminiscent of Johnny Greenwood’s more successful filmic compositions. “Before It Fell” is simpatico with Steve Gunn’s latest record, bringing a sort of tropical influence to traditional Americana guitar work. The track’s breakdown is as good of a time as Mills is capable of having, bringing together horns, Latin American percussion, and an odd-metered groove.

Heigh Ho’s last two tracks, “Shed Your Head” and “Curable Disease” bring the minutia into intense focus, with “Shed Your Head” attempting to magnify the small scale and bring it into something epic and lasting. “Curable Disease”is the album’s least engaging moment, a shame considering the heights Mills often reaches throughout the record’s twelve tracks. “Disease,” oddly enough, represents the sort of composition Mills spends much of the record trying to avoid. It’s simple, predictable, and meandering. Much (if not 11 out of 12 tracks) rails against this complacency; Heigh Ho doesn’t always achieve the levels of success the album’s best tracks boast, but the record’s unrelenting determination for something new and fresh gives Mills’ work a shelf life so rare in modern rock music. Heigh Ho, as Mills explained, is an examination of the highest of high ends in conjunction with the most rumbling of lows. Heigh Ho thrives within this realm, and with the album, Mills has proved himself to be more than a virtuosic guitar player or a heartbroken (and heartbreaking) songwriter; he’s a musician in the truest sense of the word.

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