Gary Higgins: Red Hash (Drag City)

Red HashWe have been flooded with reissues of “forgotten psychedelic classics” in the past few years. Some of them are good, lots of them are fun, and many demonstrate why they were forgotten. Few are classics. Now here comes Drag City, a Chicago label more associated with the current alt-rock scene, surprisingly touting this extremely obscure 1973 psych-folk album by a New England hippie, Gary Higgins. Even more surprisingly, this IS a classic.

So how could the folks at Radioactive have missed it?!? One reason, perhaps, is that the only overtly psychedelic musical touches – really pretty mild – are a few keyboard riffs spiced by Terry Fenton with pitch slides (“It Didn’t Take Too Long”) and some creative organ registrations (check out the tinkling notes on “Stable the Spuds”). This is not musicians attempting to duplicate the feeling of a trip; rather, this is words and music made by a psychedelicized folkie: mostly mellow, mostly acoustic music that would be the perfect complement to a number of mind-altering substances. And the music doesn’t sound dated. On the contrary: If some of these tracks (for instance, “Unable to Fly” with its arpeggiated acoustic guitar with flute and cello adornments) were on last year’s Iron and Wine album, the flow would be seamless.

A lot of the music is wistful, even melancholy minor-key meditations on uneasy topics; though Higgins’s poetic sensibility and metaphorical associations sometimes make the specifics hard to pin down, the moods are always as clear as the intricate, gently chiming multiple-guitar filigrees on which the songs often perch. “I Can’t Sleep at Night” is about fear of death reinforced by fear that there won’t be reincarnation. The absolutely gorgeous “I Pick Notes from the Sky” is a free-association meditation that touches on being a musician and a mistreated lover, briefly ponders the concept of property, is baffled by the mind/machine connection, and returns to the catharsis offered by singing.

There is one misstep: Higgins’s Howlin’ Wolf growl and the 5/4 blues groove on “Down on the Farm” offer overt variety, but the lyric is a one-note joke that’s repeated over and over, so the variety comes to seem forced on repeated listens. But beauty quickly resumes with “Unable to Fly,” and a more welcome change of pace comes on the whimsical “Lookin’ for June,” which also works up a pretty energetic groove at times. Even the two bonus tracks, the 1975 studio effort “Last Great Sperm Whale” and “Don’t Ya Know,” an early ‘80s home recording about the deprecation someone of Higgins’s appearance and lifestyle faced, are pretty good.

This sounds like the reissue of the year so far. Hats off to the person at Drag City who dragged this one out of the dustbin of history. - Steve Holtje

Gary Higgins - Red Hash

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Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.

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