House of Freaks
The second House of Freaks album from 1989 found singer/guitarist Bryan Harvey and drummer/percussionist Johnny Hott fleshing out their southern gothic garage rock sound and honing their songwriting as well. Re-issued now by Rhino in a bonus track-laden package, the record proves to be one of the essential offerings from this talented duo.
The production of the brilliant John Leckie (Stone Roses, Radiohead, The Posies) helped the Freaks fully realize a more accessible sound and bring a sense of drama to this collection of songs. You could argue the piano ballad “Family Tree” doesn’t even sound like House of Freaks, but that doesn’t make it less of a great song. Guest musician Marty McCavitt is credited with the piano, as well as Hammond B3 and pump organ. The organ in particular helps bring across Harvey’s lyrics, which seem to concentrate much more on biblical and Southern Baptist religious imagery this time out, as song titles like “King of Kings” suggest. On “I Want Answers,” perhaps the Freaks finest recorded moment, he sings “Life’s too short and it’s too odd / That it made me believe in a malevolent God / Who doesn’t understand / He’s got no great plan / The same moon shines down on every man.” “The Righteous Will Fall” similarly questions religious faith.
Other songs address the issue of race in the south directly. “White Folk’s Blood” is a rumination on slavery. The banjo-fed “Big Houses” is in the mold of a traditional Civil War folk song. Another song references Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.
Still, Harvey isn’t stuck entirely in the distant past. On “You Can’t Change the World Anymore,” he seems to take on the activist idealism of the ’80s and the pretensions of people like Bono. “I’ve seen people kneel and pray at the feet of an Irish man,” he sings. “If this world is gonna change at all / It’ll do it with or without you.” Harvey also laments the vapidity of our celebrity culture and the disappointment when you “Meet Your Heroes.” And the terrifically catchy “Sun Gone Down,” as it turns out, is actually about the death of Harvey’s father.
The CD tacks on six tracks from the subsequent All My Friends EP, which found the duo incorporating honking sax, jew’s harp, and trumpet on a couple of tracks. A pre-Sparklehorse Mark Linkous turns up as well. There are also three unreleased songs from the Tantilla sessions, including two that were re-recorded for the Freaks’ 1991 album Cakewalk, plus three demos and a live take on “Big Houses.” All the way around, a much welcome re-issue that should allow a long overdue re-appraisal of one of the best bands from the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Rhino Records: www.rhino.com