Blake Mills

Heigh Ho

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Guitarist, songwriter, and producer Blake Mills was celebrated as an outsider talent for his debut effort Break Mirrors in 2010. The fact was he'd already established himself among the fraternity of musicians. He initially recorded that set with the conscious goal of securing more session work. Mills realized it, and also did live work with everyone from Fiona Apple and Neil Diamond to Band of Horses and Norah Jones, and became a producer as well. Heigh Ho furthers the reach of Break Mirrors. Recorded mostly at Capitol's Ocean Way studio -- built specifically for Frank Sinatra -- its sound is warm, spacious, and full. He enlisted a cast of heavy friends to assist as well. Fiona Apple sings on two of the record's finest tracks. The first, "Seven," is a heartbroken yet dreamy, country-ish love song (the other players include Don Was, Jim Keltner, Gabriel Kahane, and Benmont Tench) appended by some contrasting (and tasty) funky blues guitar playing. The second, "Don't Tell Our Friends About Me," is a shuffling, rockist Americana number. It's grittier yet lyrically more upbeat. The vibe is loose with twin tiples played by Mills and Jon Brion, and the songwriter's shambolic drums. The contrast in the singer's voices on the chorus -- Apple's tender alto and Mills' grainier baritone -- creates an emotional depth in one of the set's finest moments. "Half Asleep" is intimate and sweet; it's a nearly pastoral love song that feels like a lullaby with a 1930s-sounding coda. "Three Days in Havana" showcases a typically understated yet expert Latin tinge in the guitarist's playing, though the melody sounds like a nod to Elliott Smith. "Before It Fell" begins with an implied mariachi lilt. Mills uses both guitarron and guitar. Mike Elizondo's bassline is initially the only accompaniment. After the bridge, with Griffin Goldsmith's percussion and Rob Moose's strings simulating horns, it becomes a full mariachi boogie. There's a long, meandering trio jam entitled "Shed Your Head" with Keltner's drums and Moose's strings; it evolves from laid-back to a greasy cooker. It comes off as a labyrinthine intro to "Curable Disease." Another broken love song, it's played as a duo with Keltner. It is so subtle in its melody and arrangement, it's evocative of another time -- say an early-'70s Ry Cooder album. This is another part of Heigh Ho's beauty. It moves through musical eras and genres without ever sounding out of place, too clever, or at all clumsy. Mills is as centered as a songwriter as he is a player and producer. There is nothing extra here and that's as it should be. Heigh Ho puts on offer much of what he's learned these past four years, and displays it all with acumen and openness.

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