Bob Hillman,
Playing God
(Sliced Bread Records, 1999)

New York-based singer/songwriter Bob Hillman makes you curious. After all, he managed to get producer legend Tommy West to work on this album. In the '70s West, in collaboration with Terry Cashman, was responsible for the production of Jim Croce's now classic songs.

It turns out that Hillman sounds less like the late Jim Croce than he does NY folk legend Jack Hardy, and the ever laconic and hoarse voice is definitely reminiscent of John Prine's. That ought to tell you that you won't buy this CD because of the crystal clear singing. Still, Hillman manages to make his vocals a rough, but charming affair, as he delivers them full of grits and under no false pretensions.

Hillman plays the acoustic guitar here and is supported amongst others by David Hamburger, who is responsible for pedal steel, dobro, baritone and several other guitars. The various and intricate guitar sounds are the center of Hillman's music. Many of the tracks are driven forward by relentless drums, thus revealing that Hillman also bears the marks of the alternative country scene. The only song that gets a completely different treating is "The Witchcraft Lover," which is built around a beautiful violin and cello arrangement, with only very laid back drums.

Hillman's lyrics may not be for everyone. They often have a slightly cynical ring to them and the least you can call them is black. The world he paints is a bleak one; for instance, the author in "When I Wrote a Book" starts off as a defender of the truth, but when the audience and the success elude him, he twists around the facts of his work and suddenly people start listening and the money begins to flow. In "Everyone's an Actor in New York," Hillman describes the overflow of art and the logical consequence that now that almost everybody seems to be some sort of a poor and suffering artist, there is hardly anyone left who can afford or is interested to be the audience. And your assumptions are nothing but correct in case you didn't expect any lightweight lines from songs with such titles as "List of Enemies" or "Salem." Almost the only track without a dark side to it is "$100 Bills," where Hillman tells his tale of love and the millions he would throw away for it, that is if he had them.

One can't get rid of the feeling that Hillman doesn't want his listeners to have it the easy way. This CD definitely does not include music to watch girls or boys go by. This record asks for your participation. Its beauty is hidden behind a wall of toughness. But once you get onto the other side, this record will have its reward for you. You're in for a fascinating ride. Long-term effect guaranteed.

[ by Michael Gasser ]

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