Warm guns and weathered souls

Psalm 69 gets out of the grey

Fourteen years is a mighty long time, a lifetime in rock years--enough to put out a few albums, a greatest hits package, break up a couple of times, and do at least one reunion tour. Maybe even record an "Unplugged" album when finances get tough and inspiration goes soft.

But it took Judy Hill that long to completely express herself after a 15-year affair with rock 'n' roll. After forming, breaking, and joining countless bands--including Liquid Velvet--Hill found one she could stick with. As the frontwoman for Psalm 69, this seasoned rocker has found her true voice and the musicians who believe in it.

"I've been playing for 19 years and continuously performing for 14," Hill says. "My first band was Midnite Lunch; I was 18 at the time. We played the Twilite Room and Theater Gallery when those were the only clubs in Deep Ellum. All these years I've been ignored by the press, but I never quit. I saw bands come and go in the local scene, but I never gave up."

Hill's affair is a passionate one, the kind that is scarred by bitterness after staying up all night unable to sleep and fueled by wine that turns as sour as tears. Her music is a ruthless mirror of her life, the kind of bloody mess that great songs emerge from. Through the 10 songs of Happy Hour, Psalm 69's debut album, you trace the steps of a woman in an emotional turmoil so deep that the thought of facing a "Warm Gun" is as welcome to her as the embrace of a new lover. Hill stumbles, falls, bruises, then gets up and clenches her teeth to utter a line like "She believes in believing/The only thing that keeps her sane" ("Grey").

"The songs of this album are the pinnacle of my depression," Hill says. "I have been an emotional wreck for the past few years, and at the time we were recording, I was still going through a lot of shit. Expressing such deep emotions was purging for me. My lyrics are now more spiritual, deeper, more soulful. They're coming from a weathered soul."

Listening to the ten confessionals of Happy Hour makes it even harder to believe the babble of the various Alanises and Sheryls and their designer angst. Hill's words come out tattered and blue, angry and vulnerable, full of emotional charge and sincerity. It's the kind of pathos that only Johnette Napolitano has convincingly conveyed in recent years, tolling with that ring of truth that separates the women with something to say from the girls on the radio who purr, sing, or snarl at you with as much conviction as their shallow male counterparts.

"I think what distinguishes us is the fact that we didn't jump the wagon of female [-fronted] rock bands," says drummer Chad Rea. "Most of them fall in the genre of sweet and pretty voices. There's a lot of Crestas out there. Judy sings with some heart and some angst."

If you're going to flog the dying rock horse, the whip had better be dipped in your heart's blood first, for only real passion can lift the tired 4/4 beats and abused guitar riffs out of the realm of the painfully familiar and tired. Going through the motions doesn't cut it anymore, unless you aim at impressionable teenagers. Consciously or not--it doesn't really matter--Psalm 69 understands that. Rock music can no longer sound refreshing, innovative, or even hip, but it can be interesting, engaging, and captivating if it comes from the gut, if it can make you say "these songs are about the way I feel, too."

"Our music is no-bullshit music. It is serious and emotionally charged," Hill says passionately. "People tell me that when I sing, they can tell that I mean every word. I wouldn't sing a song that I didn't believe in. The day that happens, I'll quit. I won't listen to music that is not serious, either. I look at other people's writing and performing and if I see one smidgen of bullshit, I don't like it," she adds.

It is impossible to fake songs like "Suicide," "Grey," or "Warm Gun" from Happy Hour. They creep uneasily under the skin and stay there like hidden, festering wounds. Each one is a scar on Hill's soul, preserved for posterity on a plastic disk: "I wrote 'Warm Gun' about Kurt Cobain. It's what I thought went through his head when he pulled the trigger. I tried to be in his mind when he did that. I was so affected by his death that I couldn't even drive my car. I quit work for two weeks and went into exile. It scared the shit out of me, because I felt I could do that myself," Hill says.

She continues: "'Grey' is about this character I made up in my mind. But I can relate to this unhappy woman. I always wanted to write and sing a ballad. The song ends up being about me; I can't hide that. I always had a dark side in me ever since I was nine. I thought about dying a lot, so I wanted to be good so I can go to heaven. In my journey for trying to be kind and spiritual, I have been misunderstood a lot." She takes a deep breath.

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