November 8, 2006
MICAH P. HINSON [I]AND THE OPERA CIRCUIT[/I] REVIEW
Micah P. Hinson's earlier records leaned on his weathered, husky voice that belies his young age. I don't often invoke my colleagues at Pitchfork, but the reviewers before me have been astute-- both Stephen Deusner's comparison of Hinson to Willie Nelson, and Brian Howe's assertion that whether Hinson was raised by snake-handlers or worked at the local food court, his music would still bleed authenticity. Hinson's low, near-monotone singing is as human as Nelson's, but not as approachable or everyman; there's some intangible but obvious sadness in the hoarse creak at the edges of his syllables. It's easy to believe he's been through something most of us haven't, something we'd be able to see in his eyes just as we hear it in his voice.
In contrast to the starkness of his earlier records, the backing band on Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit arrives with arrangements that are bolder, busier, and more often, a whole lot happier. After a lulling starry-night sing-along called "Seems Almost Impossible" opens on an unassuming note, a kick drum playfully smacks the two and four behind the banjo plucking of "Diggin a Grave" before the entire band kicks in-- harmonica, accordion, a fiddle prancing through Eastern tones-- transforming this dour folk song into a stirring wake. Though the instrumentation is more apparent in the latter, it makes a huge difference in both tracks, as the strings swell preternaturally and fade away in all the right moments of "Seems Almost Impossible". The band sounds more confident, and in turn, so does Hinson, singing in a laconic, assured drawl.
"Jackeyed" is even more layered, with a multi-tracked Hinson sounding positively anthemic over a full horn section that weaves between Detroit and Mexico City for inspiration, as he insists "everything will be better in a year" and sounds like he actually believes it. More strings follow on the waltz of "It's Been So Long", where Hinson yells himself ragged, but it just makes him sound more hopeful, if a little beleaguered.
But while the horns on "Jackeyed" or the high-collared, near-Victorian strings on "Little Boys Dream" add further palatability and moments of genuine surprise, they can't help but seem two-dimensional next to gut-punching solo performances like "Drift off to Sleep". Hinson sounds just as ragged as on the preceding track, but here it's more like a tennis-ball lump in his throat. Part of the reason the horns that squeal with joy on "Letter to Huntsville" work so well is because they come right after "Drift off to Sleep", pulling us out from the disc's emotional center.
Hinson's learning to use his voice as another instrument, and yet his singing remains the focal point. This is especially apparent on "You're Only Lonely", where he uses a distorted microphone; it's the record's most insistent rock performance, but it falls utterly flat without Hinson so far in front of it. Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit covers more ground and isn't as unilaterally melancholy as we're used to, though the record contains some of his best work. The arrangements seem to colorize rather than color Hinson's songs, but his talents work just as well-- maybe better-- in black and white.
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