John Thill has been a key figure in California?s Inland Empire underground music scene for a while now, running the admirable Nightpass Homemade Records label, and fronting the frequently quite good Aum Rifle and Quem Quaeritis. The experimental and genre-melding leanings of those bands have been, for better or worse, kept in the closet for ?Heart of Grime,? his first record for the venerable Shrimper label, and his most straightforward release to date. While it is a folk-ier than anything Thill has put out before, it?s not a pretty listen. It?s violent, angry, and challenging, primarily in its lyrical content, and tries to represent Thill?s trademark frustration literally, devoid of the abstract tendencies seen in his earlier work.
Very much a study of his seemingly equally beloved and hated hometown of Riverside, CA, ?Heart? is a dark record, devoid of any of the comical irreverence that made Quem Quaeritis?s music so exciting. A quick look at the song titles, such as ?Violence,? You?re Dead,? and ?Get High,? to just name a few, makes the overarching themes of the record easy to glean. Is it suburban-ennui? Ghetto-imagining? Or is it genuine hard-living? Probably a little of all these, and more than a little self-loathing.
Call it Post-Utopic California Nightmaring, and try to imagine the polar opposite of any Little Wings record. This is ?Heart of Grime:? another vision of the Golden State, to be taken with as many grains of salt as any sunny, Arthur Magazine-approved retro-dream. Whether this kind of negativity makes good listening is ultimately a matter of taste. Cynicism, irony, and self-references play well with certain crowds, and Thill may well garner a wider fan base with this outing.
Sonically, ?Heart of Grime? does rather well. Vocal overdubs add a strength to Thill?s nasally voice in a way largely unexplored in his previous work, particularly on ?In May,? the records only quasi-uplifting moment (well, the first half of it anyway). The crisp and fuzzy lo-fi aesthetic, something Shrimper knows well, is utilized to its fullest here. While very much a ?singer/songwriter? record, the largely solo acoustic accompaniment never seems clich?, and the bits of distortion that float to the surface now and then are always welcomed. Sadly, though, Thill?s Tuvan-esque throat singing (a genuine talent he displays live) is at largely hidden within the recording.
Whether culturally ?authentic? or not, ?Heart of Grime? remains a unified work, composed, no doubt, with cathartic aspirations. It?s place within the Thill trajectory is ultimately a little bit of a let down, but it?s place as a piece of anti-Californian art may well be praised in the face of so much SoCal ?based reality TV and Hollywood/Hip-Hop high-fashion and image-making. For those of us outside the Southern California?s sprawl, strip-malls, dissatisfaction, and boredom, however, it may prove to be unwanted negativity. 6/10 -- Jon Pitt (28 November, 2007)