Warm guns and weathered souls
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.
"But I believed, and I finally found happiness. I've never been happy before, and this is a first for me; a new experience. I play these songs and these feelings come back to me. As time goes by, these songs take a new meaning--now that I'm happy," Hill says.
Happy Hour is a highly emotive album that manages to capture most of the raw energy Psalm 69 exudes live. Recorded by guitarist Ruston Vickers in his home studio and released by the band, it is one of the most honest local albums ever.
"A lot of us went into it; we did it from the ground up ourselves," Vickers says. "The music is written by all of us, and Judy writes all the lyrics. It's got a little different sound than what goes on in the mainstream right now--a pretty unique album that's a melting pot of our styles."
Vickers' style is an interesting mix of diverse players like Johnny Marr, the Edge, and Michael Hedges. Live, the guitarist builds different and ever-changing riffs within each song. On the album, his guitar work is equally imaginative, to say the least. "For me it's great when someone comes to me and points out a specific part of guitar playing that I did during the show. That means they're paying attention. The hooks are the same, but I always do something different when I play live," Vickers says.
It's not only local audiences that pay attention. The band has earned a reputation outside Texas and spots on two compilation albums: demo versions of "Riding," "Warm Gun," and "Vampire" found a place on 1995's Go On Girl compilation CD from Fret Less Music. The following year, an instrumental version of "Riding" was used in the TV commercial for the gory computer game Final Doom. Earlier this year, "Falling In" became the lead track of Go On Girl 2: Class of '97. Billboard magazine noticed, calling the song "an easy fit for adventuresome college radio stations" and citing Patti Smith as an influence.
For Hill, that's the ultimate compliment: "Patti Smith is a huge influence on me," she says. "The things that have influenced me, I haven't gotten over. I'm such a new-wave baby. My favorites are Karen Lawrence and the Pinz, the Pretenders, Concrete Blonde, X, Holly Vincent and the Italians, and Cher."
Even though you can detect Hill's inspiration, it is hard to put your finger on any of her influences. Her delivery is her own, a twenty-year distillation of the precious elements of punk, hard rock, and new wave. Happy Hour would have sounded contemporary in 1977 ad 1987, and probably will in 2007--unless Armageddon strikes as scheduled.
"We all come from such diverse backgrounds, and we all write different stuff," Rea says. "But we have a definite direction the band is going. We want that feeling behind the music. The way we do it, nobody writes anything outside our practices. We normally start playing and come up with a song all together. Then we'll put it on tape, and Judy will take it home to write the lyrics. Sometimes she uses stuff from her poetry and journals. Then she comes back, and we mold the song together."
After suffering through a rotating roster of bass players for the last two years, Psalm 69 is finally a stable four-piece with the addition of Dave Scott. Now the gigs are more frequent, the crowds are bigger, and the album has put a more professional shine on the band's reputation. On top of that, MTV came knocking on their door requesting the muscular "Riding" for their workout home video, MTV's Tune Up! Total Body Results.
"Ironically, 'Riding' is the first song Judy and I wrote together," Rea says, going back three years. "That first song got us in compilation CDs, got us involved with MTV, and was used for the Final Doom commercial. Go figure."
With all the attention and well-deserved flattery under their belts, the members of Psalm 69 decided to go all the way and shoot a proper video for the song that opened so many doors for them. The clip for "Riding" is the professional, expensive kind that would be perfect for the music channel, even if the chances of seeing it next to Beavis and Butt-head at the disco are slim to none without a major-label backing. Still, it is a worthy endeavor.
"I work for an advertising agency, so I'm pretty well connected," Rea says. "The [video] director, Jim Baldwin, works for the agency, too. We had a big crew and shot in seven different locations in Texas. It took a year to make, but it is a very professional product. People donated their time. God knows how many thousands of dollars it would have cost."
Shot in black and white, the video clip is as moody and dark as the band's sound. Even though "Riding" has enough ambience on its own, the visuals add a different, slicker interpretation of that atmosphere.
"Like the rest of the album, it's a very dark song," Rea contemplates. "It's refreshing, actually, to revel in sadness."
Psalm 69 plays Thursday, July 31, at the Dark Room.
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