It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say lackadaisical troubadour Michael Hurley has experienced a comeback in the past decade. He’s always flown pretty far below most casual music fans’ radar, and still does for the most part. Heaps of praise and covers by indie songwriters such as Cat Power helped bring him to the attention of a new generation in the late 90s, and the following decade would find him releasing records on Gnomonsong (a label by Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic) and recording with Tara Jane O’Neil and Ida. Unlike other folk singers such as Gary Higgins and Vashti Bunyan, who had each recorded only one album before Ben Chasny and Banhart helped facilitate their “rediscovery,” Hurley has been semi-steadily recording and touring since his first album was released on Folkways in 1965, cultivating a small but enthusiastic audience.
Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi Records reissued three of his albums from the 1970s in the last few years, with Armchair Boogie and Hi Fi Snock Uptown being generally regarded as two of his best works, while Parsnip Snips was originally a very limited-edition collection of outtakes. Hurley lives in nearby Astoria, Oregon, plays in Portland regularly, and obviously has a good relationship with Mississippi, the small record store cum label that releases vinyl-only reissues of a wide variety of folk, blues, punk, and obscure international albums. Blue Hills, however, is a collection of new recordings by Hurley. Comprising six longish songs clocking in at around 33 minutes, the album was recorded at four different dates (“sessions” doesn’t seem to be the right term for these relatively casual, probably one-take recordings) in three different locations, one of which seems to be Hurley’s home.
Side A finds Hurley playing electric piano on the first track and pump organ on the next two. The piano has a cheap rinky-dink sound, something you might hear in a rural church or school, and it’s perfectly suited for the narcotized boogie woogie of the reluctant wake-up song “In The Morning.” Likewise, the slow wheezing of the pump organ is perfect accompaniment to Hurley’s mournful vocals on “Help Me To Get Rid of Her/How Sweet I Roamed” and “The Corridor,” as he reaches for high notes he’s rarely strived for outside of the howling on “Werewolf.” No one would ever accuse Hurley of being rushed in his delivery, but he really takes his time on these songs, letting them stretch out as he explores the keyboard, seemingly determined to find out what kind of sounds the old organ can make.
The three tunes on side B are accompanied by Hurley’s more traditional guitar playing. He’s always been as much a blues player as a folk strummer, but in recent years he’s been relying on the blues tradition more, showing off some impressive picking. The melancholy present on the first side hovers over these three songs as well, but the lightness of the guitar and softer delivery of his voice takes the edge off somewhat.
He closes the record with “Tea,” a song that originally appeared on his debut album as “The Tea Song” and that he’s performed frequently since. Hurley has a penchant for revisiting old material on recordings, a tic that might appear to suggest indifference or laziness if you’re just perusing the discography. But with each new pass at an old song, he reinvigorates it. He doesn’t completely rearrange it the way, say, Bob Dylan tends to, but merely invests himself in it wholly, and you’re happy to listen to him find new life in his old tunes. It’s especially compelling to hear him tackle “Tea,” a song almost half a century old that has him bemoaning (and literally moaning) the loss of a love and wondering at the end, “What in the world’s going to happen to me?”
It can be hard to tell exactly what he’s singing about in some of these songs — the volume balance between his voice and organ is a bit dodgy, and the enunciation of the near-septuagenarian isn’t always as clear as it could be. But after an intro like “Oh, help me someone to get rid of her/ If you are a friend to me,” backed by funeral-esque organ, you don’t exactly need a lyrics sheet to figure out what’s going on. There are lots of mentions of walking, roaming, sunshine, rain, mermaids, big fish in the river, bears in the woods of the neighborhoods, and so on, which is more than enough to go on, really, as these snatches of phrases paired with Hurley’s music paint a picture of bucolic ease occasionally intruded on by sorrow.
Hurley’s songs have always seemed to present a man caught between the pleasures of introspective solitude and the comforts of society, happy to live in the country as long as there’s a nearby road that leads back to the city. It’s all there in his back-cover painting of his dog Jocko sitting on a cabin porch, with Hurley playing guitar while an old jalopy makes its way down a two-lane highway, the lights in the houses perched precariously on the blue and red hills in the distance shining in the dusk. It doesn’t seem like a bad life at all, and Blue Hills lets us visit it for a while.