Red Hash was originally released on Higgins' Connecticut-based Nufusmoon Records. Around that time, he was busted for possession of marijuana and spent two years in prison. In his absence, the album sank into oblivion. Mastered from the original tapes with new photos and artwork from Higgins' archives as well as a lyric sheet and two bonus tracks, Red Hash is now available to a wider audience.
It's been a good couple of years for once-lost folkies. Comparing Higgins to other formative players in the midst of rebirth, he's darker than Vashti Bunyan or Incredible String Band, less outer-realms and more melodic than Simon Finn. His work could, more or less, be compared to Skip Spence's Oar dressed up like David Crosby. On Red Hash, his guitar and soulsick (but often uplifting) voice are accented with rich cello, piano, organ, mandolin, flute, and bass. The sounds are melancholy but never unaccessible: This is folk both your uncle and WFMU will (and do) love.
Coming first, "Thicker Than a Smokey"'s the strongest composition, a perfect blend of wanderer sadness, transcendent vocals, jangling instrumentation, dour melodies, and a libretto that feels like a Beatnik "Advice to the Graduate". Like many of Higgins songs, "Thicker" deals with a journey. Beginning with the queries, "What do you intend to do young man? Where do you intend to go?," he delves out homespun advice ("If you travel with a spider/ In your duffle bag/ With you good weather goes") and personal anecdote ("It's often that I wish to leave myself/ Buy some fancy clothes...") in a way that connotes something cyclical or unending.
Higgins' major themes are travel and lonesomeness. "Telegraph Towers" finds the protagonist "sailin' for home"; only the blowing wind makes him feel like he's not alone. In "I Can't Sleep at Night" he's afraid of shut-eye because it might mean death (he smells it everywhere). The mournful "Windy Child"'s downcast sing-along weds flute, cello, and Higgins' minor chords to "You were the sun/ And I was the morning dew... / You were always bigger / you were always brighter than me." The parlor fare of "Looking For June" has Higgins joined on vocals with upfront piano for a tale of a solo desert wanderer meeting with camels and the pope (check out the subtle, Eastern vibe).
Secondary lyrical fixations include animals, which often signify a lighthearted turn that under closer scrutiny isn't so joyful. There are plenty of birds (and the skies in which they fly), including a cuckoo in the track of the same name. Honing in on Trout Mask Replica, "Down on the Farm"'s comic protagonist milks a bull instead of a cow. There's also the gently humorous love ballad, "Stable the Spuds", but before getting too cozy, note the creepy piano, which trills like descending ice cubes.
The most beautiful work outside of "Thicker than a Smokey" is "Unable to Fly", which is traditional-sounding and pastoral, as if performed by Elliott Smith. (In parts, Higgins adopts a falsetto that sounds torn from Either/Or.) It retells a quest to reach the sun via an Icarus-type flight, but the hero's sent off in a wooden boat (carved by his father) to sail alone on the sea (as instructed by his mother). Before going, he turns in time to see her spread her wings "to greet the sky so blue" and fly away. Addressing a lover, he's bummed that know that knows where he's supposed to go, "You no longer care to know." He then flies, "In the golden light of your stare."
Red Hash proper consists of 11 pieces and ends with the aforementioned (Revelations-inspired?) dream quest, "Looking For June". Unfortunately, as it often goes with these sorts of reissues, the two bonus tracks aren't as powerful as the others. "Don't Ya Know" is an early 80s home recording heavy on the blues and lines about drinking whisky and playing guitar and being a long-hair. (Remember the Five Man Electrical Band via Tesla? that kind of thing...) The more ambitious "Last Great Sperm Whale"-- a 1975 studio track with bluesy slide guitar and tinny drums-- tells the story of recently freed whale who goes on an oceanic tear until he's recaptured and killed. Likely coming on the heels of Higgins' release from prison, it's a fitting allegorical finale to the reissue, but stylistically it creates a disjunct from the original Red Hash track list.
A more fitting end: Last weekend I was at a pot luck and the host put on Red Hash. The first few strums of "Thicker than a Smokey" cast a lovely soporific feel over the room before I realized what it was. Commenting on it to my friend, he mentioned that from the pictures accompanying the music, it seems Higgins possesses a certain aura of calm (and there really is a tawny haze around his head in one of the pics). It reminded me of his Tonic performance. After Higgins completed his one-song set, Chasny told the crowd to buy Higgins a beer, but once he finished, he walked back to the bar, somehow ducked out of my sight, and blended silently back into the audience before I could attempt to fulfill the request.
by Brandon Stosuy
1. Thicker Than A Smokey - 3:38
2. It Didn't Take Too Long - 4:02
3. Windy Child - 3:31
4. Telegraph Towers - 2:56
5. I Can't Sleep At Night - 3:52
6. Cuckoo - 2:10
7. I Pick Notes From The Sky - 4:45
8. Stable The Spuds - 5:22
9. Down On The Farm - 3:08
10.Unable To Fly - 4:12
11.Looking For June - 3:51
12.Don't Ya Know - 3:36
13.Last Great Sperm Whale - 5:21
Music and Lyrics by Gary Higgins
*Gary Higgins - Guitar, Drums, Vocals
*Dave Beaujon - Bass
*Maureen Wells - Cello, Vocals
*Jake Bell - Guitar, Vocals
*Paul Tierney - Mandolin, Flute, Vocals
*Jerry Fenton - Piano, Organ