Kip Loui’s first solo album, The Hill Recordings with JJ Loui, is the roots album you didn’t know you were waiting for.
An exploration of life and love, it lopes easily along on a simple bed of folk, country, rock, and jazz sounds punctuated by the electric guitar of Mark Spencer (Blood Oranges, Son Volt).
Loui, no stranger to Midwest music fans, is a special-ed teacher by day and singer/songwriter by passion who has been a mainstay of St. Louis’ thriving music scene for more than two decades. His bands have left a solid recording legacy, from the power pop Heebie Jeebies and alt-country Belle Starr in the ’90s to the rockabilly Rockhouse Ramblers and rocking Transmitters since the turn of the century.
The Hill Recordings continues that tradition of excellence. And thanks to recording engineer David Torretta, Loui’s rich and nuanced tenor has never sounded better. His voice impresses on song after song, from the Rockhouse Ramblers remake “Get Up, Get Busy,” a call to righteous living, to the revamped Transmitters lament about missed opportunity, “Here Now.”
The Hill Recordings, initially conceived as demos, contains 13 tracks, 11 originals plus a cover of the classic Bill Monroe-Jimmy Martin duet “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight.” The 13th track is a remix of “Get Up, Get Busy” by Spencer. It was recorded in Torretta’s home studio in St. Louis’ Italian Hill neighborhood in 2012 just before the birth of Kip and JJ Loui’s son Max. Loui says he wanted to get the music down “before my life would be focused elsewhere.”
Simplicity was the key. The studio band numbered just four: Loui on acoustic rhythm guitar, Spencer on lead guitar, Richard Tralles on upright bass, and Spencer Marquart on snare drum. (St. Louis music veterans Marquart and Tralles are also Loui’s bandmates in Diesel Island, a hot, performance-only, outlaw-country cover band that includes Bottle Rockets front man Brian Henneman; and in the High Dives, with JJ Loui and guitarist Marc Chechik of Melody Den.)
The only changes made to the live-in-studio recordings were the additions of JJ Loui’s harmonica and sweet harmony vocals. JJ’s vocals bring a jazzy accent to “Get Up, Get Busy” and perfectly complement Kip’s voice throughout.
“Middle of Nowhere” is an infectious song about familial bliss and typical of Loui’s generally optimistic view of life: “I got a house, it didn’t cost me much/ and a spouse with a magic touch/ pass the peas and we’ll live with ease/ in the middle of nowhere.”
In “These Things Matter in Life,” Loui suggests that “if you’re looking for deep meaning, you won’t find it here.” But the song’s “list of so-called rules presented by a common fool” belies the self-deprecation: Who doesn’t want clean undies and a cold beer on a summer day, and who wouldn’t want to do “what you want after doing what you should”?
Regrets, he’s had a few. In “Here Now,” which features the album’s best vocals by Kip and JJ, the protagonist makes one desperate bid to make up for a past blunder: “Yes, I know I made you wait/ I’m probably too late/ just had to ask you anyhow/ I’ve no right to show my face/ I left without a trace/ then stayed away but I’m here now…”
Other highlights include “Getting On,” looking back at a good life with acceptance and gratitude; “For Sale by Owner,” a traditional country weeper spiced with a poppy chorus and la-la-la backup vocals; and “Tombstone Blues Revisited,” a song about hard times and separation with a nod toward Bob Dylan.
And then there’s “Little Max,” the album’s rockingest track. It’s a love song to their son by his extended and exhausted mom and dad: “Little Max, you’re such a good boy, yes you are, you’re only five days old and already you’re a big star.”
And so should be his dad.
(The Hill Recordings with JJ Loui is available for download at Amazon and the iTunes store.)
If you find yourself in the St. Louis area on Saturday, July 9, 2016, head on over to the Focal Point, 2720 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood MO 63143, for Kip Loui’s CD release show. Mark Spencer will join Kip and JJ Loui, Richard Tralles, and Spencer Marquart to re-create the album during the first set. Then the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman will join the band for some new originals, outlaw-country covers from the Diesel Island repertoire, and some surprises.