Album of the Week: Christian Lee Hutson ― Beginners

Album of the Week returns with a look at Christian Lee Hutson's stirring debut, 'Beginners.'
By    May 28, 2020

Will Schube never listened to Pharrell’s “Happy.”

Sad music cures everything. Some people need happy music to cheer ‘em up, but not me. Happy or sad, ambivalent or filled with rage, feed me some acoustic guitar or Rod Wave or both and I’m set. My first introduction into quote-unquote good music was via the freak folk-leaning West Coast artists, a not-entirely connected scene including The Microphones (and later Mount Eerie) and Little Wings,. From there I got into Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, etc. At this point, I was a sad folk dude for life, no matter how my taste would grow outwards. Grow it did, but there’s still a part of me that loves a  dude with a guitar sounding sad even if he’s singing about something unequivocally uplifting. This is why I have a soft, ever-growing spot in my heart for Christian Lee Hutson, an LA based singer who’s been percolating for quite some time and is finally releasing his debut LP, Beginners, tomorrow via ANTI Records. But calling music ‘sad’ is a fairly loaded term considering how that can equate music that sits in a certain emotional register with a negatively charged word, but an artist like Hutson uses a certain rawness to weigh emotions equally. His music exists outside of an easy descriptor. It’s simply great.

Hutson talks about fucking up immensely and discovering drugs with the honesty and humor that’s more in line with the vulnerability of a comedian than traditional songwriters. It’s self-loathing, but not in a way that seems insincere. At other times, it’s effortlessly optimistic. In other words, Beginners is the shape of a human, with all of the contours and complexities that come with surviving, let alone living.

Hutson grew up in Santa Monica and gravitated immediately to the guitar, recording 4-track cuts that reportedly were born from a love of Elliott Smith. There’s not much more known about Hutson’s bio, or, he doesn’t have  interest in litigating the past, but from a podcast interview with Yoni Wolf from August of 2019, there is some mention of various illicit activities and a penchant for getting into trouble. When I initially checked out Hutson after the interview, though, he only had one song on his Spotify page, albeit a stunning ode dipped in nostalgia called “Northsiders.”

At some point in the not too distant past, though, Hutson found himself in a crew of musicians that included Phoebe Bridgers, and Hutson played a role in a number of her projects. He co-wrote a song on her project with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, boygenius, and assisted on a few for her Better Oblivion Community Center debut with Conor Oberst. I was first introduced to Hutson’s music by way of Wolf, who enlisted the LA native’s vocals on a track from WHY?’s last album, AOKOHIO.  

With the help of Bridgers, who produced Beginners, Hutson has emerged from the shadow of his long resume and announced himself as an integral force in a growing experimental pop scene. Alongside musicians like Bridgers, Ethan Gruska (who co-produced the new Bridgers album), Blake Mills (who seems to have his hand in everything), and more, there’s a vital new folk-rock scene developing in Los Angeles that skews and warps more traditional pop constructions in favor of something more relatable to our moment.

On Beginners, Hutson simultaneously mines the past to look forward. He uses his own history and the stories of those around him to soothe, agitate, and ignore. He’s not necessarily hopeful, but there’s an immediacy to his writing that eliminates any second guessing. The album is 10 songs long and only has two that extend past the four minute mark, but Hutson’s concise songwriting style lends the album a plot that never meanders. Hutson knows exactly what he wants to say, and he simply says it; often with just an acoustic guitar, occasionally with a  band.

“Get the Old Band Back Together” is an aptly-titled full-band affair, but in Hutson’s case, that’s little more than a bass and snare drum, an acoustic guitar, and a barely-there bassline. Hutson’s melody occasionally echoes Elliott Smith’s achingly gorgeous “Needle in the Hay,” aware of how knee-buckling it is but never becoming sterile in service to some abstract definition of beauty. “Lose This Number” is the album’s lead single, featuring a layered guitar line that coils around itself and dives deep into the echo chamber of a bass drum.

Aside from his gift as a lyricist, Hutson proves himself to be a masterful arranger, knowing exactly how much, or, in most cases, how little, his songs need. It’s stripped down, but never bare, taped together but never broken. It’s a sad album, but listening to it is a joy. Life is filled with tragedy and bad days. Good music, like Beginners, transcends a black/white, happy/sad duality. It simply translates life into something you want to sing.

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