Label: Sandbar Music
Released: May 2006
According to Mars Hill’s Myspace page, they are “one of the most original and finest bands of the 21st century” and they are “genre-defying.” The former is beyond a stretch. No offense, but they aren’t even close. The latter, however, is pretty accurate.
The list of genres touched significantly by Mars Hill is longer than most bands’ list of even their most remote influences. Over the course of the album, they hit jazz (of the good and bad variety), hip-hop, Spanish, cabaret, reggae, dance, soul and, of course, rock. Among those who try to bring in disparate influences, few bands can take a list that long and maintain their own sound throughout. Careful arrangements manage to make this album homogeneous, but the actual songwriting and performance lack life as if the experiment couldn’t quite be brought to full fruition. To be fair though, the lounge angle is a part of their shtick and adding more personality to the songs may have compromised that.
Their talent as players is generally pretty evident, particularly in the rhythm section that really drives the album to the extent that it is driven. The vocals range from laid-back, spoken style, reminiscent of Damon Albarn’s work in Gorillaz, to well-cadenced hip-hop to an ethereal female soprano usually appearing in a backup role. Keys, guitar and horns act more as accents. The production doesn’t keep the elements separate, but also fails to fill out the sound. They’re really not far off target; they just fall a little short of what could have been.
There are thousands of cover bands out there that can morph their sound into any genre on command, but there are not nearly so many that can incorporate all of those genres into a single sound. While Mars Hill doesn’t quite nail everything, they do come pretty close, so close in fact that they may be poised for an outstanding follow-up to this good, but not great, album. It’s not essential, but it’s worth a listen if you’re looking for a band that’s going in a new direction and doing an admirable if imperfect job rather than making a shambles of it.