Flame Worthy 

Hotpipes are slyly subversive on their latest

When Music Row songwriters ply their trade, they often ask, “What’s the story?” The question betrays an obsession with narrative linearity that has nothing to do with good music, country or otherwise.

When Music Row songwriters ply their trade, they often ask, “What’s the story?” The question betrays an obsession with narrative linearity that has nothing to do with good music, country or otherwise. Rather, profound musical experiences result from a combination of instrumentation, melody, dynamics (or lack thereof), setting and message—the latter of which can be up for grabs, such as with Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” or Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.”

When Music Row songwriters ply their trade, they often ask, “What’s the story?” The question betrays an obsession with narrative linearity that has nothing to do with good music, country or otherwise. Rather, profound musical experiences result from a combination of instrumentation, melody, dynamics (or lack thereof), setting and message—the latter of which can be up for grabs, such as with Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” or Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.”

Nashville’s Hotpipes understand the value of this kind of imprecision. The quintet’s new self-titled recording is a herky-jerk slosh-fest, complete with lyrics that defy understanding yet encourage interpretation.

Hotpipes formed four years ago, but its members have ties that reach back further than that. Singer and principal songwriter Jonathan Rogers grew up with bassist Justin Hall and guitarist/keyboardist Art Schoulties. (Drummer Dan Sommers and guitarist/keyboardist David Mengerink complete the band’s lineup.) As a child, Rogers (who claims to have always written songs) enlisted Hall to accompany him on his formative compositions.

Maybe those early connections account for Hotpipes’ playfulness. Recorded by Loney Hutchins (who’s also responsible for decidedly nonlinear recordings by LYLAS and The Mattoid), the record has a roomy sound that plays cacophony against organization, never taking either too seriously.

Take “Starter Kit,” an anthem that recalls art-rock bands such as Queen or Gentle Giant, albeit with a sense of post-punk detachment. Its sing-along chorus and stately-yet-stumbling verses feel more like orchestral movements than pop song components. By song’s end, things fall apart, leaving the vocal chorus to segue into the following track—another orchestral touch.

Additionally, Hotpipes makes much from sparing use of live strings and horns. A ragged brass section, which brings to mind a Sergio Leone film soundtrack, grounds the frenzied stomp of “Much Too.” Likewise, a chamber string ensemble and a strident bass drumbeat are the sole accompaniment on “Lota Lee,” one of the record’s more downcast tracks.

Comparisons to anal-retentive bands like Queen might be misleading—Hotpipes is much more freewheeling than that. With modern recording techniques, metronomic precision is within the reach of any band. As a result, a lot of the goo that makes bands sound unique is wiped away. Hotpipes is distinctive in large part because it avoids such technologies, preferring instead to meander away from strict time and A440 pitch.

“Downer, Quitter,” for instance, begins like a cabaret number from Bizarro World, with Rogers’ wobbly falsetto projecting from what sounds like a megaphone. From there, the song alternates between several “movements” that are anarchic both harmonically and groove-wise. The effect is visceral, if not exactly toe-tapping.

That gut-level response isn’t an accident. Rogers counts among his heroes early 20th century Russian writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov, whose The Master and Margarita is famously subtle yet dissident. Lyrically, Rogers (whose voice recalls that of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) is more concerned with conjuring moods than literal description. As with Bulgakov, this ambiguity requires that the listener do some interpretive work. Lyrics such as “I came to trample / I work on worms / I take my medicine without the spoon” (from “Love in 3’s”) are inherently seditious—their target, however, is left to the imagination.

Hotpipes defies simple description—its reliance on orchestral conventions removes it from the categories of pre-, proper- or post-punk. Likewise, its scattershot rhythms and harmonic dissonance place it outside the realm of pop. The record is lyrically significant, but not the least bit singer-songwriter-y. In fact, its songs refuse to answer any questions of the one-or-the-other sort. Hotpipes has a stand-alone sound that operates on a multitude of levels, some of which require that the listener pay attention. And in logocentric environments like Music Row and its orbit, that’s a subversive move.

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