No Label Records
After listening to Canadian guitarist Steve Hill’s Desert Trip a few times it’s been somewhat challenging trying to pinpoint just what film his amazingly cinematic music evokes. Now this writer is landing on the desolate landscapes of No Country for Old Men (on second thought, that’s true for some material but as you’ll learn, this project covers a wide musical swath). Arguably the Clint Eastwood westerns come to mind too. There is a prominent sense of loneliness, not brought on by the pandemic as these songs were written during a trip in 2016 to the Desert Trip Festival in Coachella. Yet, as Hill quickly realized, they share much in terms of the kinds of moods many of us have experienced in this past year.
“I had an amazing time while I was there and decided to hang around LA for a little longer” Steve says of that trip. “After a couple of days I felt the urge to move and a need to explore. I rented a camper van and crisscrossed the state for about 3 weeks, bought a guitar and wrote some tunes at night while camping in Death Valley, Big Sur, Yosemite, San Rafael and many other wild places. These are the songs I wrote, along with a few vamped up oldies of mine that fit right in as if they’d been written on the same trip…somehow these songs make more sense to me lately, a journey through my state of mind at the time, and maybe a foretelling of the way I feel now. I hope they can bring you a little joy and comfort in these troubled times.”
Hill has been mostly known for the past eight years as a one-man band both in terms of recordings and performances. He brings plenty of variety, having recorded these ten selections in five different studios. Some of his one-man band virtuosity is on display here but most songs have at least a rhythm section and two have three-piece horn section. No matter, as the intimacy is ever present especially in the stark acoustic folk-blues of “Evening Star,” “I Won’t,” “Make Believe,” and “Days,” all of which have different and remarkable guitar work. In “Judgment Day,” we get a rhythm section and wailing electric guitar but that comes in answer to constant vocal refrain of “Alone, alone.” Continuing in that haunted vein, Hill closes with “Tail Lights,” another trio rendering featuring some excellent acoustic slide before building into more glorious electric guitar.
His opening, stunning “Evening Star,” sets the foreboding tone and lets the listener know right away that Hill is an accomplished guitarist. “Rain,” the single, has the indelible lines “I’ve been here so many times before, I’ll come back this way I’m sure” that remains convincing the first time through but in its many repetitions becomes downright irresistible…” I’ll come back this way for ever more.” “Follow You Down” is led by his acoustic guitar but it too if fleshed out by horns that form the backdrop for Hill’s adept marriage of acoustic and electric strings. Some of these bring in rock and pop elements too. “Cold Hearts” and “Gotta Be Strong” benefit from backing vocalists.
There’s so much here in Hill’s brilliant mix of styles, genres, and sound palettes that it’s easy to see how Hill has fashioned an immensely successful career as a solo act and one-man band. His reputation as a guitarist has long been well established. The revelation may be his top-notch songwriting. This is one of those memorable albums that will beckon for repeated listens.
– Jim Hynes