Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit – S/T

The term alt-country and the title of this disc are a bit deceiving. This is not a play set to music with all of the words sung to orchestral accompaniment, nor is it anything like the country in “country and western”. It is instead the heartfelt, back-porch musings of one Micah P. Hinson, a young ex-con from Abilene, Texas who has been addicted to prescription pain medication, did time for forging prescriptions, and had a turbulent relationship with a Vogue cover model all before the age of 20. The Opera Circuit is the name given to the dozen or so musicians that helped him flesh out these eleven original, indie-leaning, alt-country musical sketches.

This is neither typical alt-country nor singer-songwriter fare. For one, the alt-country label owes more to a few sparse arrangements and the liberal use of banjo and harmonica than it does to the style of play. For two, Mr. Hinson has a very unique and husky voice that at times sounds like a combination of Nick Cave, Richard Butler (The Psychedelic Furs) and Mark Oliver Everett (Eels). The similarities to these singers does not end with the way his voice sounds either, as Hinson is adept at providing the necessary emotion in ways comparable to these artists, whether it’s a wavering whisper on a slower song or a guttural howl on a more lively tune.

Also atypical for singer/songwriters is not so much the bevy of varied instruments used (guitars, banjo, mandolin, organ, piano, accordion, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, violin and viola), but the fact that Hinson employs so many different musicians to play them while still managing to inject his personal emotionality into every one of the songs without sounding contrived. The combination of the lo-fi production, melancholic strings and the intelligent use of orchestral ambience and a few insect chirps, all provide a certain antiquated feel, which in turn brings a genuine and familiar quality to the music.

Micah P. Hinson And The Opera Circuit contains some quite creative and colorful music with parallels to Eels and Nick Cave found in the way everyday subject matter is reflected upon from a skewed point of view. In this case mostly based on Hinson’s bizarre life experiences at such a young age. Hinson also shares the RIYL artists’ affinity for sculpting songs void of unnecessary dressings without creating a musical vacuum. Each song seems constructed using whatever instruments and orchestrations are necessarily added for effect and to form the desired outcome which includes full out indie-rock electric guitars, surreal jazz funeral, almost-classical strings and sparsely arranged, scorching, back-country freak-folk.

The fuller band-sounding songs catch the listener’s ear immediately. “Diggin’ A Grave” is an excellent example as it even includes a rousing hook that sounds like a soundtrack for Russian kick-dancing. “Letter From Huntsville”, “My Time Wasted”, and “You’re Only Lonely” are also heavier songs that include some electric guitars and exploding indie-rock rhythms. “It’s Been So Long” and “She Don’t Own Me” are more abstract with a slower pace and beautifully placed melancholic strings. In between are a few stripped down affairs that are nothing more than acoustic accompaniment to Hinson’s cracked voice. This makes for a somewhat disjointed effort which is the album’s only drawback.

Micah P. Hinson And The Opera Circuit is a very unique album that can be as warm and familiar as it can be chilling and alien. After repeated plays all of these aspects end up being enjoyed since it is apparent that these songs were built with an honest emotional grit that ultimately shines through in every song, either in Hinson’s voice or in the music.