Eric Sorensen says:
Better Living Through Compression - by Cliff Hillis. With seven months still left in the year, TallBoy Records has released another Top Ten contender with the latest work from talented popster Cliff Hillis. The disc opens with a great power pop track - So Much To Tell You. Home sparkles with the most jangly guitar riffs, and All These Memories features some nice Beach Boys production touches. Regardless of the tempo, tone or complexity, Hillis excels at giving each song a polished flavor of its own. Cliff Hillis gets it - and more pop artists should learn from him!
Mike Bennett says:
One of the most frustrating things
about reviewing loads of independently released music is that so much good
music has little chance of reaching the larger audience it deserves. This is
particularly frustrating when writing about artists like Cliff Hillis. Hillis
writes wonderful evocative pop songs that are thoroughly accessible. Hillis is
a top flight power popper. Ten years ago, such a designation might net him a
major label deal, like Tommy Keene, or, even better, a hit record like Matthew
Sweet. But even those artists have not achieved success proportionate with the
quality of their music, music that would seem to have widespread appeal.
I would like to believe that there is a parallel universe where power pop artists like Sweet, Keene and Hillis were big stars. And in that universe, this is how a rock encyclopedia would describe this record:
The personable Hillis solidified his
position as the logical successor to the power pop royalty of the ‘80s and ‘90s
with his second album. The former Starbelly singer-guitarist made a big splash
with his debut, Be Seeing You, and the second album advanced on its
predecessor by showing off an added maturity and depth. This culminated in
three songs that dominated the American airwaves in 2004.
The first was the sweet Madeline, a bittersweet love song that was as classic as ‘70s-era Paul McCartney, yet as contemporary as Owsley. This sweet number had a deceptively catchy melody, and a distinct emotional tone -- at one level a lament at a romance that failed, yet, at another level, infused with a warmth that acknowledged that there were good times too. Hillis's expert guitar ornamentation only added to allure.
Rather than follow up with a more typical rocker, Hillis then unleashed the beautiful Used to Be The Man. With its generally spare instrumentation, the friendly and empathetic tones of Hillis's voice really struck a chord with listeners. The song is a wistful inventory of a better past. Yet again, Hillis showed a great facility for augmenting his singing with well placed lead guitar fills. This song really seemed to resonate, coming in an election year in which a poor economy and the fierce debate over war were hot topics. A song about looking over past mistakes must have seemed timely.
The topper was the stand out amongst stand outs, All These Memories. A simply timeless song that sounds like it could have been heard alongside 10cc on a ‘70s transistor radio or on an alternative station in the ‘90s right after The La's, the song was a stirring ballad that superbly updated the sounds of power pop originators like Badfinger and The Raspberries. This pensive song, with its gentle haunting backing vocals and indelible guitar solo, may have induced more goose bumps than any tune since The Korgis' Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime.
While it was the pensive side of Hillis that surprisingly sent him up the charts, the album had its fair share of up tempo magic. On Go Go Go, Hillis mixed a nifty Elliot Easton-ish guitar part with mid-tempo rock that was somewhere in between the sounds of the early Posies and The Gin Blossoms. Better than Myself was a shuffling smiler enhanced with just the hint of a twang (which is why it later resurfaced as a big country hit when waxed by Dwight Yoakam).
The album stills sounds great today, showing an artist finding all of the pieces coming into place. Yet may would say, the best was still on the horizon.
I must note that it's really reassuring that parallel universe rock encyclopedia's of the future will read as if I wrote them. But seriously, Hillis is on par with other contemporary pop singer-songwriters, like Michael Carpenter and Brendan Benson, who seem to innately and effortlessly write songs that just feel right. His solo record winning streak now stands at two.
GARY GLAUBER SAYS:
Sometimes, subtle is the way to go. It would seem to be the key behind the pleasant pop of Cliff Hillis. At first listen, it seems nice enough. But with repeated listens, the subtle nuances emerge, elevating this music well above the norm. Better Living Through Compression, the impressive sophomore release from the former Starbelly member, finds Hillis in good form, backed by his band of Forward Thinkers (Ken Herblin on guitar, Dave Anthony on drums, Greg Maragos on bass) and a host of guest musicians.
The amiable Hillis (a bona fide nice guy) knows his pop/rock music history well. Indeed, his uncanny covers of songs on various compilations over these past few years have come to be personal favorites (McCartney's This One, Tommy Roe's Dizzy and Teenage Fanclub's Can't Feel My Soul). He's so adept at covering various styles and artists, I've often found myself wondering what his next release might sound like.
Better Living Through Compression does not disappoint. Most of these songs are mid-tempo numbers steeped in rock/pop influences from what's gone before, yet they stand out as impressive originals. Each of these eleven tracks is as well put-together as any of those cover songs, a further testament to Hillis' abilities. Those talents are on full display here: you get Hillis as singer/songwriter, guitarist, keyboardist, producer and mixer.
The CD opens with the infectious So Much To Tell You, the tale of a man tired of hiding behind the charade of being little more than a good friend. He knows there's a risk involved in confessing all he has to tell, still that risk is better than regret: you can't prepare for what might have been / it never hurts as much as when you're looking back on the chances that you'll never get again. The harmonies, combined with the affable melody, make this one a winner.
A slightly slower pace suits Used To Be The Man, a musical reminisce of a man twenty years beyond his prime, still always looking back to what now seems like another life, a distant daydream.
The genial love song Two Of The Same is another devilishly catchy one, featuring some fine guitar fills that accompany this happy realization: Back and forth we dream out loud of the future perfect day / Take a number, settle down, there must be another way / But you came along, and what could I say / Now I know for sure, we're two of the same.
Hillis has a gift for subtle emotions that touch just the right note. The sweet melodic shuffle that is Home is a simple celebration of independence, even when sometimes feeling on the outside.
Madeline, sounding like a classic song from the 1960s, addresses a woman after a failed relationship, seeking to find common footing and friendship even after so much has changed. He notes the inevitability of change, the shame of it, the difficulty of finding meaning in life and more: It's funny how sometimes the more you try / the more some things in life just pass you by. The Jellybricks lend great harmonic backing vocals.
The harder rocking (and relatively short) Go Go Go is an anthem to commitment from a philosophic superman: It's alright if you want to stay / I've been waiting for you every day / There's just one thing you've gotta know / I will never let you go go go / Save it for another life.
Hillis seems to have a knack for infectious melodies, but in China Heart, he lets fly with his most poetic lyrics: In the last days of the fall / could you be my China doll / sit inside an open box / whisper slowly / Look to the periphery / Ask the stars to blink for me / Smiling from your China heart / lay beside me / I'll follow you into tomorrow.
What if broken hearts could really kill you? This is the perspective given us in Six Feet Under, where one thus afflicted is begging for another chance: I'll be everything you ever want me to / Still we fade into black / Can't sleep, the rain is always falling down on me / Take me back.
The spare piano and chorus of backing vocals by Ritchie Rubini (who co-wrote this song) drive the haunting All These Memories. This poignant recounting of how memories return like long-lost friends, going on as yesterday becomes today and even tomorrow: All these memories lay beside me as I go to sleep / Stirring slowly, miles below me, coming back to keep.
Another three-minute gem is the pleasingly jangly Better Than Myself. Here Hillis recounts the battle of winning the confidence of a reluctant other: Talk to strangers, get a strange reply / it's so obvious to me / Like the weather, making up your mind is never easy or complete / I would like to know you better than anyone else / I would like to know you better than myself.
The CD closes with Ribbons & Rain, a ballad of a man tired of the same old runaround: There's no point in leading me when, it's the same circle we follow again, tied up with ribbons and rain.
There are oblique musical references here that extend from the Fab Four to the Pre-fab Four (my beloved Monkees) and far beyond, yet every song stands on its own as a genuinely catchy Cliff Hillis original.
Cliff Hillis doesn't shout out his many talents from the rooftops. Like his music, Hillis is subtle, graceful, confident and contained. But the talent is real and the proof is in the music. The cordial songs of *Better Living Through Compression* get better with each repeated listen, and in a world often besieged with the blatant, perhaps the time for subtlety is now.