Blake Mills

Blake Mills

Big week, y’all. I’m writing this on Thursday night, immediately after confirming that my silver 64 GB iPhone 6 is still scheduled to be delivered sometime on Friday. Given that my current phone qualifies for not one but two recalls — one concerning a sleep/wake button that no longer works and the other concerning a battery that just kind of says “fuck it” and shuts the phone down randomly — you’ll understand why I’ve been looking forward to this Friday for some time.

And yet…

…I might be even more excited about Tuesday’s Heigh Ho release.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I’ve been looking forward to Heigh Ho since October 26 of last year, when Mrs. YHT and I saw Blake Mills and Fiona Apple perform in Washington D.C. The album hadn’t been announced yet, but I walked out of the Lincoln Theater completely in awe of Mills’ capabilities. There are things about that show I decided I wouldn’t even try to put into words — the power of seeing Apple sing in person, the way Mills interacted with Apple as she interacted with the audience — but I think I found a way to describe Mills’ mastery of the guitar, thanks to The Splendid Table.

I’ll often come back from running after work and find Mrs. YHT working on dinner while listening to the Splendid Table podcast. Some months back, I caught a chunk of a discussion about how Indian cooks use spices. The quote that stuck with me, and that I think applies here, came from guest Raghavan Iyer: “If you give whole spices to a good Indian cook, he or she should be able to extract eight different flavors from a given spice.” Here’s Iver on cumin:

1. When you use cumin seeds as is, you get their distinctive spice flavor.
2. When you grind the seeds and sprinkle them in a dish, the flavor is more pronounced and quite different: musky and earthy.
3. Take the whole seeds and toast them in a dry pan, with no oil, and you will experience a nutty aroma.
4. Take those toasted seeds and grind them, and they smell nothing like any of their previous incarnations.
5. Heat a little oil and roast the seeds, and you will discover yet another flavor — almost sweet smelling and smoky.
6. Grind the cumin seeds after you roast them, and they will seem to lose their smoky bouquet.
7. Soak the whole seeds in a liquid, and their presence will be surprisingly subtle.
8. And when you grind cumin seeds after you soak them, they not only take on the liquid’s taste but also impart the spice’s eighth flavor: The strong nutlike aroma reappears, masked by the infused flavor of the liquid.

Wild, eh?

Mills is the same way with guitars. He had a small army of instruments on stage at the Lincoln Theater, and he used each one to a distinct, measured effect. It wasn’t just the pedals he used — the physical act of playing seemed different on different songs, like he was pulling something specific out of each guitar. Some were made to sound loud and strained, others were plucked delicately, and there were times it looked like he was using the heel of his hand to produce a dull, round sound that was barely audible. I was sitting too far from the stage to be sure, but he may not have used a pick the entire time. No two songs sounded the same — of that I am sure. I’ve never been a big gear person, but I’ll never forget the control he wielded.

It’s not surprising that the same care, variety and virtuosity is present on Heigh Ho, given Mills’ production experience, but the album’s strengths aren’t limited to his guitar work. Lyrics alternate between storytelling and dissection of complex emotions, like those described in “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me.” And then there are Fiona Apple’s contributions, on that song and “Seven,” which make my heart so, so happy. In truth, the emotional impact of that Lincoln Theater show had me so primed for a future Mills record that he would have had to release a serious stinker for me to disapprove. Still, I’m willing to go out on a limb after just a few listens and say this is one of the most exceptional albums released in 2014, and I recommend giving it a try.

Speaking of recommended listening, a quick plug — I’ll be appearing on WDCE tomorrow, joining host Doug Nunnally for an hour of his Sound Gaze show, which airs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. We’ll be talking about YHT and Richmond music and listening to some great songs — Blake Mills’ included — so I hope you’ll tune in. (I’ll be very nervous, so please forgive me for speaking loudly. Or quietly. Either way, an appropriate volume is unlikely.)

Listen to Mills’ “If I’m Unworthy” below and click here to buy Heigh Ho.

Blake Mills — “If I’m Unworthy” [Spotify/iTunes]

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