The Spirit - Hugo Race and the True Spirit (Rough Velvet/ Glitterhouse)
Dig it: “The Spirit” is a five star album and Hugo Race and the True Spirit will be touring it through Europe, from West to East, from October 2015 onwards. There will be a second record from the recording sessions (not featured here): “False Idols” will appear in October. When you get the vinyl of “True Spirit” there’s a CD included; hell, that’s a bargain as far as I’m concerned.
Brace yourselves, Europeans. Buy tickets - and Hugo’s back catalogue. You’re in for a treat. No gig will be the same: “Each time we play one of our songs the interpretation changes because of the sound - the sound is always morphing, it’s always coming through us and we’re changing all the time and open to the fact that we’re channeling music as much as we’re playing it. Performance blurs those lines…”, Hugo explains.
“The Spirit” has been a long time coming. The band - it may be Race’s name, but it’s well and truly a band effort - have been rehearsing and recording it all slowly, in between Race’s trips between Melbourne and the rest of the world. The True Spirit first recorded together on “The Goldstreet Sessions’”(another fine record, go get it, along with their other three lLPs) “which was very much a new life for the True Spirit, definitely an evolution”, Hugo tells me.
And it’s worth the wait. Partly, of course, because this isn’t a band under pressure by a record label to follow up a gigantic hit. Here is a band on-track to create something powerful, of great emotional significance to them.
Here’s a bit of context for you. Many people recall how Hugo was once a member of Nick Cave’s band; many draw a comparison, usually assuming that Nick influenced Hugo. The key to the late ‘70s scene, just like many of the scenes around the world at the time, was to deeply investigate a genre, mine it, and then develop your own sound and style.
While Nick investigated the blues, he was hardly the only one. Let’s also recall that Nick isn’t primarily a guitarist. For a while Hugo’s own development in The Wreckery seemed to parallel Nick’s, but they both began veering apart. These days, when people remark on an apparent similarity, I explain: “Think of Hugo as a kindred spirit to Nick, but who never had a hit”. See, there are areas of overlap. But that’s hardly surprising; it’s quite clear that both Nick Cave and Hugo were influenced by (among others) by not just the hip Leonard Cohen, but by Bruce Springsteen.
Hugo’s development of his talent has been a huge act of creativity maintained over many years, delving into corners of the world forgotten or dismissed by the rest of us. Consequently on ‘The Spirit’ we hear echoes (deliberate, you may be sure) of Cohen, Springsteen and Barry White as well as The Velvet Underground … and while there is much more, really, all you can do once you’ve put this gem on is to let it get its claws and bedclothes in and around you.
Hugo’s voice, of course, is on-form and warm liquid smoke, Michelangelo Russo’s moog and minimoog (with associated pedals) means that in some ways he’s a lead guitar player, creating effects with aplomb and without aggrandisement. Brett Poliness uses a stripped-down kit and relies on his skill and talent. With Bryan, Brett sets the pace, sets the tone, simple, powerful. Charlie Watts would enjoy seeing Brett work. Bryan Colechin’s bass is tough without being aggro, measured, strong and has a tendency to pluck at your belly and chest. Shakes your spine.
Then there’s Hugo’s guitar … it all sounds so simple, what each member does. Yet “The Spirit” is an lp of complexity, as approachable as a beach in summer, as familiar as a favourite, funny-wise uncle. You smile a lot, you learn without realising, you have fun, you dance.
“Man Check Your Woman” comes pounding at us like a dreadnought ploughing through a village, Hugo’s seductively matter-of-fact delivery making the whole spectacular. I’ve seen The True Spirit play songs from “The Spirit” recently, and they are, quite simply, killer. If you’ve managed to avoid dancing within the first few bars you’ll be scampering to the lyrics - ‘what you don’t know/ is infinite/ all the rest/ is bullshit … what would you do if you knew the truth/ woman check your man’. God, who writes like this today? Hugo was always a huge talent but right now he’s brushing his past aside like he’s on the ascendant.
There can’t be too many of the “Elevate My Love” b/w “One Cylinder” 7”s left. “Elevate My Love” is instantly erotic, Tom Jones whispering in your ear, Percy Sledge or Mikey Dread’s shade rippling underneath… ‘I’ll do anything/ to make you stay/ I feel the rush of blood/ as my heart beats inside you’ …
What is utterly beguiling is how little Hugo is playing, and how effective it is. Most musicians who do the ‘superstar and the also rans’ thing use it as a way of making themselves look great. Hugo looks deep into the heart and soul of his lyrics and music and encourages the musicians around him to dominate. His voice and lyrics are, after all, paramount but it’s the emotional world Michelangelo, Brett, Bryan and Nico Mansy create which give Hugo space - and the delight in seducing us.
Here’s Hugo the incurable, romantic troubadour; ’we are the hunter and the kill/ the jungle ready to be born’. Again, is anyone writing with such brilliance these days? Just quickly, a word on Michelangelo - what he brings to Hugo’s songs allows the songs greater richness and depth; there is no repetition and suddenly every song has the power of a haiku, but the scope of a film.
“The Information” is another stirring dance monster which holds our intelligence captive, takes it away to where dreamers conjure up the modern world from dung and spiderwebs. Hugo tells us a tale as his extraordinary voice hypnotises us like adults with iPads. I’m not going to tell you about the lyrics here - you have to hear them, read them.
As with much of Hugo’s writing, he’s somewhere between the ancient and the modern; with “The Information” I’m forcibly reminded of several poignant moments of Conrad in “The Secret Agent”. Put it this way, Donne, Sidney and Jonson would want to read Hugo Race. Collection of lyrics, please, Mr Race…
“Sleepwalker” begins with the sound of cicadas accompanied with a gorgeous heavy guitar tune; when Bryan’s bass kicks in, tho, we’re off. Truth is The True Spirit are closer to a hybrid blue/jazz outfit than anything - but to use those terms instantly confines their music: ‘I hear music/ songs of love and hate/ I can’t do this without you/ here beside me’. We assume he’s addressing someone, that the song is personal, intimate. Well, it’s both those things, but it might just be about Hugo’s relationship with us. This is, without a single metal chord or anything like it, one of the heaviest songs I’ve heard in yonks.
Hugo recently explained; “We taped a lot of the final album with Idge at his Soundpark studio, capturing our sound with ambient mics and vintage processors. But the vibe of that house and the all-night recording sessions with the background buzz of cicadas and the homemade instruments in the tool shed, it’s all still there.” It’s true, “The Spirit” has a unique, rich, loamy quality, the stuff of life and longevity.
“Heaven or Die” is the first of two instrumentals here, where the band open a door into a glorious, endlessly romantic soundtrack. Aching, yearning, wish we were here even though we are; under two minutes of Sheer Bliss.
Side Two continues the evocative, slowed-down pace of the last two songs. “Bring Me Wine”, Jesus. Look, y’know how some Leonard Cohen songs seem like small films in themselves? Well, Leonard should be covering this one. If not Mylene Farmer, or even those two women who are so far beneath her but better know globally: Madonna and Kylie (though neither could handle the gravitas, believe me). ‘Bring Me Wine’ is utterly … transcendent. Where Hugo seems to have gone in his investigation of the music of all countries, it just seems broader than almost anyone else I can think of. ‘I gave you my last cigarette/ While history passed us by’…
“Dollar Quarter” continues this sensual, muscular hypnosis. Hugo’s delivery - and the fabulous production - is such that you can either hear his lyrics clearly, or just let them blend into the music, curling round your shoulders like a favourite coat on a cold day. “Dollar Quarter” (it’s an American money reference) reminds me of the anti-establishment riots in the 6ts, which it shouldn’t I guess. But it does. Maybe I’m thinking of Mingus as well. Probably.
“Heartbreak 69” is three and a half minutes. It soars and plummets, tries to communicate through the confusion and can’t. It’s brilliant. Somewhere between Goblin and Krautrock, tears and heartbreak. Put it on a loop and use it when those overseas phone salesfolk get through.
“Wildcards” strides out of the wilderness like The Walkin Dude, dark, battered and everlasting. It’s also the most straightforward of all the songs here, which is probably why it comes after “Heartbreak 69”, it’s a divining rod back to civilisation and the known world. And this, I have to say, is the first time I’ve ever really, clearly heard Hugo make a definite musical nod to the Velvets. But, it’s so natural that even mentioning it I feel cheap. Why? Because the one thing about Hugo is that, for all his soaking up of other cultures, he never mimics it (I recall a rather successful Paul Simon lp which I won’t mention, for example) nor cheapens it. He’s like a young guitarist with a new pedal: ‘what can I do with this?’
“Higher Power” is the perfect end to “The Spirit”, which is to say it brings all the band’s ideas and beliefs together into a harmonious whole. ‘Everybody got to answer/ to a higher power … everybody got to make peace/ with a higher power’… to say he leaves us profoundly uplifted, disturbed, wondering, delighted … you get the picture? No? Go get “The Spirit”.
I recently saw Hugo and The True Spirit in Adelaide. They were mighty fine. Effortlessly powerful, relaxed on stage and with each other, all of them thoroughly enjoying their music. Utterly into it, but aware and joyful. Seeing Hugo Race with his band is to be caught up once again in the joys of life, it’s unutterable complexities, its truths and mysteries. In between jumping up and down as the music plays and takes you somewhere else.
This is a defining LP for The True Spirit, there’s no way they can go backward. This is benchmark stuff. The production is … huge, clear, powerful. If you live in a town where Hugo’s playing, you’d be a complete fool not to go.
Five, six or seven stars. You decide.