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The Hilltops

Big Black River – 1997 (Black Dog)

Reviewed by Roy Kasten

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CDs by The Hilltops

The band that would become Blue Mountain cut these 15 songs in Memphis in 1991, at an interesting point in rock music (for this is, above all else, a rock album). Grunge avatars were fusing punk and pop melody in Seattle, while in the midwest (and elsewhere) an handful of bands were exploring the union of punk and country.

This re-release is like a excellent demo (it's a bit hissy and muddy in places) and the band rocks under the influence of The Minutemen and Dinosaur Jr. But some deep blues (as on the howling version of Robert Johnson's "Judgment Day") and the mountain music of their native south shine through. Still, one might ask, where is the country amidst the growling angst, and amps about to blow? Answer: the flowing melody of the title track, lyrics like "By the side of the road where the weeds grow wild / there's a woman walkin' with a fatherless child...," the harmony of Laurie Stirrat and Carey Hudson's vocal phrasings and fiddle.

This record is more for fans of The Replacements than the Drifting Cowboys, though its best moments will please all lovers of American roots music.