A Louisiana native based in San Francisco, Hudson Bell began putting his music out on homemade cassettes just before grunge blew the doors off indie rock at the start of the ’90s. His prolific catalog — a meandering, maturing evolution from earnest acoustic music to laconic, extended rock — varies in style and achievement but has maintained an upward arc that has reached great heights. Although not entirely unwarranted, comparisons to Pavement, Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr. and Neil Young only scratch the surface; tremulous singing and whorls of guitar noise are elements of his music, not its totality. Weirdly, my thought upon first hearing his music (the monstrously great fuzz-rock song “Slow Burn” on When the Sun Is the Moon) was that Norman Greenbaum’s ineffably odd and wonderful “Spirit in the Sky” (1970) had finally found its indie-rock purpose.
The story begins with The King’s Dreams. Bell himself says on Bandcamp, “Recorded in Lexington, KY at the end of 1989/begin of 1990, using various cassette machines. I’m pretty sure I had purchased a tape by a local band (Inflatable Toaster Blenders) at Cut Corner, and it influenced me to make this, though there was never any intention to sell it. Heavily influenced by the College Rock favorites at the time.” Other than “The Child,” it’s hard to discern any evidence of the music rocking student radio in those days, but the audible impact of influences can be subtle. The audio fidelity is poor, but the ten-song cassette is impressive for what it offers: well-played acoustic guitar, some electric guitar (not as well-played), ambitious singing, occasional percussion, confidence and originality.
Strawberry Lane was “recorded in Lexington, KY on a Tascam 4-track in late 1991/early 1992. Originally self-titled. Naming it now after the street I lived on. While there is a definite naïve quality to a good bit of this, the major inspiration was my getting into Bob Dylan at the time. While it doesn’t ‘sound’ like Bob Dylan at all, the influence is obvious with a number of the songs. While some of this made me cringe just a few years later, I’m mostly putting it up here for retrospective transparency, and also for those that still ask me about it, who remember it from high school, etc.” (Bandcamp) The recording quality is improved, and his guitar playing is likewise a lot more accomplished, but the overall feeling is more direct, less stylish. (That could be the invisible hand of Bob, which is unmistakable in several songs.) Restraint adds powerfully to the atmosphere of some songs; on “Cold” and other tunes, the doubled vocals make it prettier. Lyrics convey a sense of isolation (“Forlorn,” “Friend of the Birds,” “People Like You,” “When It’s Hard to Relate”) but the album doesn’t feel like a plea for comfort so much as an even-handed statement of fact. The brief instrumental closer, “Season,” is lovely. With a real studio, a producer and a few sidemen, this could have easily gotten a proper release. For a homemade solo project, it’s pretty great.
“All songs recorded between 1992-1994 on the same 4-track in either Oxford, Miss. or Little Rock, Ark.” (Bandcamp). Of the 17 numbers on T.M. Filler, which vary in length from barely one minute to seven,were later recycled without revision on Under Boxes and Dirt; strike them from this cassette and the “filler” designation closes in a little. Another solo project with guest players on three tunes (“Hoppin Over Mud,” his first ever track backed by a rhythm section, is a jam headed toward Crazy Horse territory that ends before it gets there), T.M. Filler shows Bell’s mastery of his two primary instruments, setting guitar (he still isn’t a good lead player) against artful singing, which in spots here definitely channels the young Neil. Within the limitations of homebrew recording, this achieves a lot and suggests Vic Chesnutt, Leo Kottke and early Bay Area psychedelia, before the heavy drugs kicked in.
Two tracks from the largely uneventful Atonal Life were salvaged for his first CD; at a dozen songs, it doesn’t sprawl and dawdle like its predecessor, but there’s an offhand quality, maybe a lack of effort, that lacks the spark of earlier work. There’s some lovely guitar playing, but songs drift and fade out with shape or evident purpose, more sketches than completed creations. (“Circus Freaks” is the strangest of those; others hew to more traditional structures.) “Monument,” which merits the Pavement comparison, is a real highlight.
Recorded on four-track in Oxford, Homemade Adrenaline is a sub-par placeholder: 19 songs, most of them short, casual and possibly improvised; the production is rudimentary, arrangements are simple going on non-existent. Two of the best tunes — “Wait and See” and “Story of Your Life” — made it onto Under Boxes and Dirt, although “Soapstar,” a pretty song with a hurricane of electric guitar buzz, is just as good. (Conversely, “Loudness” and “You Live Once” tip over into self-indulgent noise.) Of all the cassettes, this is the easiest one to overlook.
Although it scarcely sounds like it, Under Boxes and Dirt, Hudson Bell’s first CD, is a 16-song retrospective compilation of his home recordings. It holds up as a singular and compellingly intimate statement of multi-stylistic purpose, gentle intimacy colored at times with noise (and, less frequently, with key-agnostic solos). “Footholes” sets the stage, spending nearly seven minutes to proceed from ruminative acoustic guitar figures to engaging vocals and then onto a rushing train of Indian-inflected tabla-like drama. The chorus melody of “Error in the Chemistry,” an acoustic song avec le fuzz, closely follows the barred guitar chords, and so resembles Pavement, but it’s a handsome song regardless. There are signs of circumstance throughout: “The Painter,” which effectively matches minor chords to plaintive harmonica and a keening chorus, buries the lyrics low in the mix. The more memorable “Weedin'” has a flubbed ending but wields the same ingredients and gets the balance better. At every turn, Bell’s soothing voice, deployed with care and restraint, pulls you in closer to the comforting music, making Under Boxes and Dirt a stirring experience. I couldn’t tell you what he’s singing about, though: the lyrics don’t easily reveal a clear meaning.
Captain of the Old Girls steps through a door into Bell’s devastating lazy-rock mode: droney, distorted electric guitar, more direct, forceful singing and lyrics that could have been drawn from conversations. The ten new tracks include a Lou Reed cover (“Vicious Circle”), a breathtaking flock of squalling noises (“Expatriate”), a gorgeous reflection on love (“The Other Side”) whose lyric (“and when that time comes and I lay myself down to die”) already presages the coming connection to “Spirit in the Sky” (“When I die and they lay me to rest”), a roaring sonic tribute to the Replacements (“Halcyon Days”) and the echoing, solemn power of “Dead Man,” which blueprints the sound of his coming masterwork and declares “I have no place to go / and the songs I sing are so slow / my friends say I’m a dead man / and now I will rise again.”
Indeed. From its opening moments, When the Sun Is the Moon — recorded with a solid, unobtrusive rhythm section and incidental keyboards — collates all of his stylistic achievements and elevates Bell’s work to the sky. The aptly titled “Slow Burn” begins with a minute-fifty of lightly pinging guitar notes (c.f. U2 “Bad”), petals strewn on the musical road, with offbeat hammer-ons and stormy blasts of distorted chords disturbing the calm. Then an electric bass thrusts itself into the mix and we’re off to the races for six monumental minutes of layered, sizzling fuzz, piercing leads, an implacable, stomping beat and double-tracked vocals reeling off a poetic hallucination on mortality: “And into the blaze we go / Pile up all the things we know / Who said that we die alone? / Your hand in my hand / Has grown into a place where we’ve never been / So why should we fear the end?” Just perfect. “The Falls” is nearly the same song, but starts out much lighter, in both sound and words (“driving through the mountains / listening to a song”) before letting the rock dogs run free with wild contrapuntal soloing and the hypnotic repetition of “when the sun becomes the moon.” Haunting. “Seven Cities” goes all the way to a wash of blisteringly loud dream-pop that could be a backing track for Ride. Throughout the album, armed with a fine collection of songs (“Strange Lands” and the elegant, elegiac, blaring finale, “Sea Horse,” among them), Bell is in complete control, pushing forward, pulling back, letting loose and masterfully pitting contrasting sounds against each other with easy aplomb. A masterpiece.
Out of the Clouds pulls back. The explosion of ideas is trimmed to a handful of functions with less invention. “A Blessing & a Curse” does acoustic restraint and wall of electricity, but pulls back and ambles where the previous album went all out and barreled ahead. “Merlin” is a ruminative acoustic instrumental and a stirring electric march with a powerful final section that suggests Bell has had a belated introduction to Big Country. “Magic Balloon” and “Gunslingers,” both brisk and shapely, are monochromatic in sound, sensuous beds of guitar distortion from start to finish. There’s nothing wrong with that (as Dave Grohl has demonstrated), but an artist who can do so much with dynamics shelves that magic at his peril. “Grosses Fass” (“Big Barrel”) loses its way, dissolving into layers of noodly guitar effects. “Into the Morning,” a slow, sad love song with piano and trumpet is jarred by this odd couplet: “I’ve laid down with a lot of pretty women / Laid down with some ugly ones, too.” Wisely, the simple, direct and handsome “Explorer” ends the album on a solid note and some crazy rhythms.
Bell’s third consecutive album with bassist/keyboard player John Slater and drummer Brian Fraser (the trio being known as Hudson Bell) is the first that feels like a real band effort; call it indie-rock if you must. A big step in a good direction, Yerba Buena fields tightly constructed songs — some with simple, catchy choruses (something new for Bell) — winning backing vocals, simple, could-be-live arrangements and direct, upfront singing. Perhaps the result of playing out, the band exudes energy and enthusiasm; there’s little of the coil-and-explode dynamics on which Bell long relied. The album is more cohesive and consistently forceful, if less intimate and atmospheric, than previous releases. Bell has grown to be a fervently good guitarist; his inventive writing keeps the songs from blurring into each other. Some are brief and taut, others loose and expansive. “Tooth Fairy” speeds along peppily with a light, tenor melody; “Guided Eyes” and “Strait of Anian” both roar for five thrilling minutes; the grand “Love Everybody” delivers an uplifting singalong chorus unlike anything he’s ever done before. “The Sea” ends the album with stirring drum-driven drama, Bell’s impassioned vocal drowned in reverb. Memorable and magnificent.
Psychic Breaks begins with a handsome whorl of baroque strings: Masterpiece Theater come to indie rock. The album credits no performers other than Bell, so the process and provenance of the music, which is primarily (I’m guessing) keyboards, is a clear sonic break with the artist’s past work. That said, the surprising stylistic digressions — in a number of different directions — cause no loss in the haunting beauty and engaging poetry of the songs, observations of life weightlessly buoyed in a well of memory, loss and longing. In fact, it allows greater prominence for Bell’s singing, a distinctively unwound mixture of blasé confidence and abiding concern. That opening song, “Big City, Small World,” makes it clear that graceful music is no guarantee of it being propelled by equally placid ideas: “You’d cut your wrist cause I ran away / Living the nightmare, we used to say.”
The songs are as diverse in construction as in sound, suggestive phrases to anecdotes to travelogues, none of them anywhere near straightforward verse-chorus. A fizzy head of techno-pop burbles through the enigmatic “Demolition Man” (“I would do anything not to blow this world / Into smithereens”) as well as the more direct, sketchy “Magic Times.” The nearly industrial “The Omega Point” hazily repeats the title through a swirl of keys over a gently thumping beat, while the waltzing strings of “Dr. Solitude” support whispery words in a shadowy voice that recalls another Louisiana-to-Bay Area creative, the Residents. With abundant lyrics and busy, hypnotically cyclic keyboards, “This Side of the River” embarks on a Southern voyage, namechecking Clarksdale, Baton Rouge, Natchez and Memphis as well as several Delta blues icons, while “The Dead Sea,” setting slow singing against effervescent OMD keyboards, takes “the train to Berlin” and visits “the temples of Jerusalem.” A brave, visionary album that ably reaches everywhere it sets out for.