Devil in the Details: Stephanie Hatfield & the Hot Mess - September 5, 2011

"Stephanie Hatfield and Hot Mess play a fascinating role in the theatre that is Santa Fe music..."

Music represents us—our ideals, passions, sense of wonder—in a way that other art forms cannot.  It is a coded language of both math and timing; short bursts of ordered sound aimed directly at our emotional switches.

And because of the emotional value we assign to the music we love, we expect a lot from musicians. As much as we want our favorite musicians to grow creatively, we also expect them to stay committed to their respective style. Needless to say, decades of draconian record label contracts shaped much of popular music’s character and ensured that musicians color inside the lines. But because of music’s democratized and rebellious nature, in which we can all play a part, music grows.

Stephanie Hatfield and Hot Mess play a fascinating role in the theatre that is Santa Fe music and illustrate an evolving creative practice. With anthem-like bravado, they’re an embodiment of stadium band playing the local bar circuit. A kind of “fat man in a little coat” scenario that plays itself out bigger and bolder than any other players in town. This brings a variety of complications to the band, both inside the music they create and places where they play. In the end, Hatfield and company offer uncompromised music and a willingness to explore fresh terrain.

“Tracks” the band’s second and newly released album takes the band into a darker and more contemplative sonic sphere than its self-titled debut album. Where enormous crescendos and stylized compositions filled out the previous album, “Tracks” finds twelve semi-subdued songs that are more in balance as a five-piece band.

Here we have Hatfield’s classically trained vocals that deconstruct themselves into instinctual rather than technical delivery. Her vocals had a tendency to shove around the musicality in the first album. The maturity of the band, despite recent additions of Justin Lindsey (guitar) and Andy Primm (drums), is notable and makes for a solid construction of songs that were once again produced by band guitarist Bill Palmer. 

The album’s lead song, “Leave Somehow” should be recognizable to audiences as part of their set list. The song’s most interesting element is the opening guitar riff. The waft of the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” doesn’t seem to be an accident. Again, this is a band that doesn’t take any shit, for better or worse, from anyone. So rather than pointing the finger around, the allusion is a subtle acknowledgment—us against them— by echoing the Stones’ lyrics: “Say now, baby/I'm the rank outsider/You can be my partner in crime…”

“Wrong Side of Dawn, and “Be Enough” should be markers for the band’s evolution. They exemplify the band’s non-committal to singular influences. The former has the markings of the bands signatures: guttural vocals belting lyrics that are slightly south of best intentions; broad strums blends with bent string textures and fully calculated rhythms. Think of Lucinda Williams’ album “West,” where the particles of her madness pepper every step. 

Together with the songs “Shadow” and “Compare,” the latter reaches into the neighborhood of new wave syncopation; it is a different brand of rhythmic aggression than R&B/Blues rooted raw nerve. Synthesizers courtesy of R Bruce Phillips and Kevin Zoernig sweep and choreograph the songs with urban complexity providing fertile ground for Hatfield to stretch her legs into the cracks and crevices of the songs. The three particular songs, arguably the strongest on the album, offer a refreshing direction to the album and surprising new distance for the band.

There is always one song on any given album that stands out for its palatable character.  “Then She Did,” by Jane’s Addiction or “Ramble On,” by Led Zeppelin, for example, have inspired opening phrasing that make music composition seem easy. 

“Sinful Paradise” doesn’t push any boundaries, redefine our knowledge about contemporary music, nor does it take a stand on a cumbersome political issue. What it does is reiterate the simple pleasures of melody, rhythm and delivery.  It is a pearl amid the whirlwind of the album. 

“Tracks” is a complicated animal. It is not an album that has easily accessible points. The songs require close attention. In its best moments, the album truly engages and holds listeners. At other times, the songs get lost within it’s own maze, and in spite of its adventurous appeal, the songs never quite break off the leash. To call “Tracks” a transitional album would be to diminish its overarching strengths. Certainly, there are worse things in the world than not settling comfortably into one style, and the risks involved here are worth the time and energy.