Album Review

Bill Morris – Hinterland

Bill Morris - Hinterland

 "Hinterland" Nominated as a Finalist NZ Country Song of the Year (2015)  

It’s easy to review artists who are famous, have a reputation and a following because there is a certain amount of expectance in their performance. It’s easy to criticize those artists when they deviate from their normal style, venture away from their comfort zone – or our comfort zone, when they actually produce their art / product.

Many who listen to commercial radio, watch the “accepted” mainstream artists who make frequent appearances on television. However, what they happen to like often falls into a narrow frame, dare I say it, commercial frame. What they miss when they solely focus on this hodge podge (and some is alright, don't get me wrong) is the true creative and original artists who walk the edge of possibilities in music. If those “unknown” artists don’t walk that edge they do walk a tightrope because they have to rely solely on their instincts. In the beginning, even Elvis Presley was on the edge. 

Some artists may sound too much like what came before them because they are influenced – knowingly or unknowingly. Then, there is the artist who knows how to take what is known and reshape it into something their own. Average listeners who claim they love music don’t always have the time, patience or exploratory education to discover these special people. They are too busy being busy or they are followers. Those who do have the time, make the time, will be pleasantly surprised to discover that there are people who provide music that is fresh, challenging and original.

If you eat vanilla ice cream all your life you may say justifiably that you like ice cream. But, if you don’t at least try chocolate, strawberry, peach, butter pecan or coffee ice cream – you will never know what diversity is. And ignorance comes in many forms – even in the flavors of ice cream.

I review many independent artists because I enjoy discovering these “unfamiliar” musicians, what they have to say, how they say it, and I admire their….grit. Bill Morris is an artist with grit.

From the opening songs I hear what many may have heard in the early 60’s when a young Bob Dylan stepped forward. The Bill Morris voice is familiar – it has a tone that is, at its best – unique. It sounds like Bill is in the company of male singers such as: Peter Himmelman (Bob Dylan’s son-in-law), Joe Henry, John Haitt, Marc Cohn, Billy Bragg and in some instances even Phil Ochs. Bill has the voice that is as much a signature sound as any of those fine songsmiths.

Lyrically, Bill has the storytelling tune down tight and his melodies are simple and memorable as a John Prine tale. But, because Bill is from New Zealand – his weaving of tales has a special flavor. He’s thousands of miles from Nashville, but even those songwriters would not want to get into the “ring” with a heavyweight like Bill Morris. If they did, they’d have to bring their best songs and arrangements and they better not blink.

Bill Morris understands the Dylan magic, the Woody Guthrie folklore, the Native American mystical storytelling similar to singer/songwriter John Trudell. The piss and vinegar of Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury, J.J. Cale and the aforementioned John Haitt. Evident in a song like “Ruby In the Dust,” his masterpiece of folk song with ingenuous lyrics and melody.

But, let’s start at the beginning where Bill Morris starts off his generous new 12-track album “Hinterland,” -- the title song has been nominated as a finalist NZ Country Song of the Year (2015). On this collection there's a splendid song: “House By The Highway” that features chiming Byrds-like guitars – Roger McGuinn rich and quite Americana. But, this is New Zealand, right?

Instead of gasoline trucks, or hauling orange crates from California Bill mentions sheep trucks shifting gears. The dream of the road is obviously alive and well even in New Zealand as it is in Texas or Oklahoma. “Without those diesels in my ear….” The banjos, mandolins and pedal steel instruments ring as clear as a crisp wind through pines. Bill’s voice is not forceful in am old English manner like Richard Thompson or mid-career Elvis Presley. It has a tender, traditional tone and his sharp phrasing is perfectly matched for this kind of song.

“Gold Light (In the Palms of My Hands)” is as good as anything written and performed in Nashville or Austin. “I met Melissa in a Westie bar, we rolled a joint and smoked it in her car….” Nothing special, but there are thousands of good ole boys from New Zealand to Nebraska who know exactly what that song is all about and they can relate to this. The clever turns of phrase are accentuated by the precision of the stringed instruments and Morris’ vocals are confident, authoritative, rural and human-esque. He has just enough “country” in his vocals to be heard on any American radio station along side their very best.

“Hinterland,” has a sharp cool Steve Hudson drum beat that stands out like a heartbeat. The whining pedal steel rustles through your heart like autumn leaves. The banjo and mandolin are so sweet and the over-all recording: impeccable. This is a little reminicent of an early 70's folk-rock singer Michael Dinner -- who, with help from Jackson Browne and Linda Ronsadt provided two incredible Fantasy albums ("Tom Thumb the Dreamer" and "The Great Pretender") in the same tradition as "Hinterland." Every instrument on "Hinterland," is pristine and they add to the entire menagerie of the melody. The deep telecaster guitar frames the song with no intrusion on the more traditional instruments.

“Roses In the Drawer,” is a jaunty upbeat song also with a John Prine feel – Bill Morris is not emulating Prine – he has his own perfected style but it’s a nice break from the more serious material. “I keep these roses in a drawer where the sun won’t fade ‘em…” These are the songs that a songwriter has be extremely careful with because they can easily fall into a novelty category. But this is not a novelty song. There’s a poignancy to it which keeps it in a Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers tradition.

The next song is the masterpiece – mentioned earlier – with all its intricate lyrics – and wonderful story. “Ruby In the Dark,” is tight like the impeccable musicians who have played for decades with Gordon Lightfoot. It’s a narration told in a very Irish-Scottish manner – carefully chosen words, clever rhymes and braced with stirring storytelling with an abundance of personality.  A 300 pound bald muscular he-man in a bar would appreciate the words in this masterful song. “Seems I’ve spent half my life out here in the dust, digging in vain for precious stone….” Sounds like the miner’s version of the old folk song “Big Joe and Phantom 309,” written by Tommy Faile and covered by Tom Waits.

Morris writes some of his poignant tales the way early Tom Waits wrote his tender, memorable tales like “Ruby’s Arms,” “Martha,” and “ ‘Ol’55.” Morris on "Hinterland," delivers the goods. He’s an excellent wordsmith and he has melodies that are consistent and easily stick in a listener’s mind.

He even has titles to songs that Waits would envy. “No Vacancy In Heaven.” With lyrics like “They found his body lying down, the motel strip at the northern end of town…” Oh yeah…while Bill doesn’t have that Tom Waits growl – he does have “an eye-witness in the shadows” voice. This is not imitation Tom Waits or Chuck E. Weiss – this is just Bill Morris walking down the same streets as Tom. In this song, Morris has a mournful violin following closely behind him, the guitars are Bill Morris inflected and the music maintains its own flavor – it’s own design. Distinctly Morris.

“….just another soul in transition through this black hole, and no one ever stays for long.” Quite good.

Morris, if he must be compared to anyone vocally and on this tune especially – sounds a little like the great Al Stewart from his days of “The Year of the Cat,” or even more so – Stewart’s unbelievable “Genie On A Table Top,” – because Stewart has always been a fine, clever wordsmith as well. Bill is in fine company and he deserves it.

“Driving Music,” is upbeat, it digs a listener out of the dregs of the city and its urban images by bringing listeners closer to rural mischievousness. “She was doing her nails in the passenger’s seat, sunburn on her thighs and sandals on her feet…” This one moves along at a fast clip with expressive playing on stringed instruments.

The mandolin and acoustic guitars step forward to take a more evocative role in “Dusty Corners.” Sounds like a typical Nashville yarn with vocal duets. Again, Bill has a tune that could be played on American country stations and few would even detect that he’s not American. I say it that way, because artists like Bill and the brilliant, award-winning New Zealand country singer Donna Dean are so good -- they could easily share a stage with the best Nashville and Austin have to offer on any given day. They occupy a special place in music because the quality is there in quantity and they are consistent. They live their songs. Their songs are original, well-developed, teeming with bright ideas and they’re not always singing about big hats, big asses, powerful trucks and gallons of beer and whiskey.

“The Day The Stock Trucks Came,” is filled with inspired instrumental interplay. So, I ask you…are we in New Zealand or some highway town in Oklahoma? That’s how simply these songs can be interpreted. They are tales that could have taken place even on the plains of Nebraska. Trucks are trucks wherever they are and the drivers all share the same brotherhood. Motorcycle riders aren’t the 20th or 21st Century’s cowboys. Truck drivers are.

Fuzz-toned guitar and gritty narration starts the excellent “Remnants of Ruminants,” a fascinating tune oozing with originality. “There’s an electric fence around my heart….”

With quirky dueling electric guitar and acoustic guitar gnarling at each other, they sneer and play impeccably. The entire arrangement and approach is wholly unique – I have seldom, if ever, heard a track such as this. Bill plays acoustic, Joseph Haskin plays electric guitars and John Egenes is on dobro. A musical dialogue and interplay that is clever at best. Will it be a hit in the States? Hell, no. Not even a clever American could coax a radio station to be that daring. A hit on your own personal system? Oh, I’ll be adding this one to my playlist, no doubt. I like being challenged. This is a formidable opponent. 

In New Zealand, this track was released as a single – and so was “Hinterland” and as I mentioned -- the grit in Bill Morris and the sincerity in his warm vocals arouses many emotions. And…and…if I had to leave the United States and live in New Zealand – I know I wouldn’t hunger or thirst for great roots music – there is a wealth of this music just percolates down under. And if you try hard on a clear day…you can smell it in their air…that fine aroma of rich imaginative stories, energetic vocals and enduring musicianship. America has great artists…absolutely -- but, they really shouldn’t turn their backs ever…on the talent that is country music in New Zealand. I experienced it first hand and I am not surprised. Bill Morris? He’s a natural, and I will be listening for more -- this was quite the musical roller coaster ride.

I’ve included the incredible video for the song “Mud,” that is a cool rocker with a strong message – included in Bill’s 2012 album “Mud.” An intense video with many images Americans can relate to. The American folkies of the 60’s would give their left arm for a song / video this compelling.

As stated, Bill Morris’ track “Hinterland,” has also been nominated as a finalist NZ Country Song of the Year (2015). Not too shabby. The CD is a handsome three panel die-cut with lyric book. The cover design was created by Regina Speer and the overall art work by Pauline Bellamy. The CD was produced by John Egenes and recorded in Dunedin, New Zealand by John and engineer Danny Buchanan. Mastered in Boulder, Colorado by David Glasser at Airshow.   

Photography: Portrait of Bill Morris was courtesy of his website -- no single photographer was cited. 

Website:  http://billmorris.co.nz/

FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/billmorrisnz?ref=hl

BandCamp:  http://billmorris.bandcamp.com/

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.

John Apice / No Depression / May 2015