Kye Alfred Hillig
Reviewed by Kent Manthie
This is the second review that I’ve written for Mr. Hillig. The first one was for an album he did a year or so ago, entitled, Real Snow. Kye has just released his latest, The Buddhist, another DIY project that he is out promoting currently.
To make up for the not very clear or descriptive review which I wrote for Real Snow, I’m hoping this one will make up for that one and give the potential listener a better guide.
OK, so, let’s take The Buddhist all by itself and we’ll not compare it to any other artists or bands. I’m going to take Kye Alfred Hillig and his music for what it is and not for what it isn’t or what it does or doesn’t sound like.
As far as this “folk” label that I read somewhere: I think whomever it was that mentioned that Hillig sounds like a folkie got confused, thinking that a singer/songwriter who plays his songs on an acoustic guitar and sings the lyrics on a microphone, with no backing band, no rock set-up, like a guitar, bass, drum kit and a keyboard or synthesizer is a de facto folkie.
Hillig’s sound isn’t what I’d necessary call “folk”. It’s got a mellow, quiet, somewhat introspective vibe to it. The bare, sparse, acoustic guitar & microphone has, in this case, a hip, dark café kind of aura to it. The lyrics are a kind of Tom Waits-ish, storytelling narrative, a la a diary of a life of a man who’s reflecting on his recent past and things that he’d done with certain friends and lovers, ex-lovers and acquaintances. He sure doesn’t pull any punches here, with his bare-knuckled, no minced words lyrics.
I suppose, if one wants to compare Kye to any other singer/songwriters, two, that come to my mind, are Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Think of a kinder, gentler Tom Waits (sans the factory sounds, hammering and grease guns and machine tools all making their hard-working, aching creaks, whines, bangs and other rhythmic industrial tool kit) mixed w/the poetic, reflective paeans of Leonard Cohen. But there’s more to Hillig than just a modern day Waits or Cohen- he’s got a great lyrical ability. He’s definitely no “family-friendly”, easy-listening boorish, cornball songwriter; he mixes great, visual lyrical pictures that are mixed with discordant words that give punctuation to whatever feelings he is getting across – not afraid to say what he feels on the inside and has too much integrity to speak in euphemisms and PG-rated speech. No, when “bullshit” needs to be called “bullshit” he’s not shy about it, nor anything else. A street-wise poet who has a great classical vocabulary as well, the two of which mix well and one gives credibility to the other.
On the quite interesting song titles on The Buddhist, songs such as “I’m Alive Because of Nuclear Bombs”, the song starts out with the factoid that it was due to the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan because, if they hadn’t been dropped, his grandfather was slated to be one of the first to be ready to invade the home island of Honshu and, if he had been blown away by the fierce fighting Japanese, he wouldn’t have been able to have his father and his father couldn’t have begotten him. But as it goes on, Kye seems to be singing, in a somewhat jaded way, in a larger picture, about the fact, that the way the modern world has evolved since the post-war period has been, mostly due to the fact that the dangerously seeming brinksmanship that went on, pretty much between the two major world powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the two “superpowers” who, between them, at the apex of the cold war, had up to, maybe 50,000 warheads(?) – the ironic thing is that the extreme paranoia, in terms of geopolitics, the arms race, winning “hearts & minds” over to one side or the other (communism vs. capitalism), etc which occurred throughout the 1950s and into the ‘60s, was a reason for America, in its glory, post-war days, when the average US household was buying homes & assuming mortgages and driving big, fast cars at a record pace, when the GDP of the US was at a relative high compared to what was to come in the lull of the 70s, only to be snookered by Reagan in the 80s, in which the poor got much poorer and the rich got much richer, up to the 90s when the whole bubble burst and Reaganomics was seen for the fraud it was, we were lucky enough to have gotten to the technological point where the “dot-com” bubble arose and arose fast – fast enough to boost the Dow Jones and NASDAQ to record levels, even to where, at the end of 2000, the US had its first spending surplus in something like 40 years or so, only to be wasted by the Republican reptiles who weaseled their way in to the White House and, within a year, got us back into deficit spending. Anyway, the point I think he was making was that Nuclear Bombs “saved our lives” because they kept any more WWIIs from breaking out because of the fact that the 5 biggest powers of the world were all armed with nuclear weapons, plus China, by about 1964 or so (or was it ’65?). There’s more to the song than mere statistical, recent world history from the past 80 years – there’s the line that goes “I’m alive because of nuclear bombs/But millions of people had to die/So I could be born” and the fact that there were all these people who had to make sacrifices so that the people in the rich, free nations of the world, especially America, could live prosperous, fat lives, without fear or worry. In the end, this isn’t a “pro-US-defense-posture” song; it’s more of an ironic denunciation of the things that kept the world in check all these years – look what happened to places like the Balkans after the fall of the USSR. Or the breakup of the Soviet (and before that, the Russian –White Russian) Empire- countries that scrambled for independence the way Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, etc. did after the fall of the Berlin Wall – former SSRs like Turkmenistan, Kurdistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine – which, of course, is now in the news a lot, with Putin, the new tyrant of Russia, where things are not so rosy anymore, trying to get Ukraine to join back with the Russian “Federation” and not go towards the European Union – Putin already showed force by taking the Crimea part of Ukraine, a mostly Russian-speaking, resort area that, in the old Soviet era, many party officials would vacation at, in their fancy Dachas.
Anyway, I’m not here to go on about the state of the world today, I just thought I saw a parallel in that song to the past 50 or so years and the more one listens to it, the more ironic the lyrics sound.
Another great song is “Some Good Things Just Have to Die”, a song about loss and the depressing fact that, it is true, that too often, we hear about the deaths of talented, great people – whether they’re in music, film or politics or writers, etc. It’s kind of like the old saw that “only the good die young”.
“The House Across the Streets Feeds on Broken Families” is a song that talks about a memory of a neighborhood where a house exists that seems to be cursed as the succession of families that move in there seem to always end up to disintegrate into violence and anger and eventual dissolution, as seen through the eyes of a young boy who just wants to be left in peace to “play his video games”. By the end, he’s singing aloud that he wishes the house would just “stay empty/stay empty”
I hope this is a more cohesive write up of the brilliance of Kye Alfred Hillig and his troubadour-style atmosphere. The quiet, soft melodies of the songs, belie a realistic, unabridged look at various personal as well as social ills and the state of the many, confusing realities of the world. I must say, the songs themselves, the pleasing melodies, the mellow but haunting acoustic guitar accompaniment are fabulous by themselves, but it’s the mining of the rich material that make up the brilliant lyrics that really complete the album. –KM.