Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Best Music You’ve Never Heard = The Hatters

Sometimes a band comes along that is so great they seem to coast right over the top of the music scene and don’t touch down long enough to get noticed beyond a passing glance.  They are incredibly talented musicians and good songwriters, but for whatever reason, the public consciousness just never gets wind of them.  Despite critical acclaim and having connections with other bands that have already garnered some attention, they still don’t catch a break.  They may even tour with a band making waves, which should open doors, but sadly, it never happens.  All of what I’ve just written perfectly describes The Hatters, a forgotten band from New York that should have blown the doors off the music industry, but sadly remains relegated to bargain bins and a few glowing mentions on the Internet.

The Hatters don’t sound like a band from New York, so that may be part of their problem.  Rather, they sound like a band squarely from the South, but not in the Lynyrd Skynyrd sense – think more Allman Brothers.  But that’s not the whole story – no, their sound combines elements of bluesy southern and classic rock, to be sure, but they have a “jam band” quality about them that gives them a more expansive palette to draw from.  Plus they add some of the (then) modern elements that make them relevant for their time, plus their songs and presentation are such that when you hear them, they stick with you.

The Hatters started out as The Mad Hatters somewhere in around 1989, and went through a handful of logos and iterations before the stable line-up of Adam Hirsh, Adam Evans, Billy Jay Stein, Jon Kaplan, and Tommy Kaelin began to make waves among the East Coast rock scene in the early 90’s.  They were signed to Atlantic Records and released a live album called “Live Thunderchicken”.  It’s a risky move, releasing a live album before any studio material comes out, and this too, may have been part of the band’s downfall.  Atlantic must have thought the band was so impressive live that they felt it was appropriate to do so.  I don’t have “Thunderchicken” yet, but by all accounts it’s a stellar recording of the band’s live performances, and some regard it as their best release on account of their “Jam Band” status.  I prefer to think of The Hatters as more a “rootsy” rock band, alongside then contemporaries like Spin Doctors, Blues Traveller, and to some extent, Collective Soul.

I'm not exactly sure what a "thunderchicken" is supposed to be...

Where my Hatters story starts is the band’s proper full-length studio debut, the mouthful-titled “The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado Overlord”.  While some may be turned off by the overly long album title and cheesy artwork, I was immediately drawn to it and when I looked at the album sleeve in the used CD store, I immediately thought to myself, “This artwork and album title are so awesome – I have to hear this!”  So I got the cashier to pull the CD out of the drawer and let me listen to a few moments of it in the demo player.  Within 2 or 3 tracks, I was loving what I was hearing, and I knew I had to have it.  I plunked down the money for the disc (along with a couple other releases) and went on home.  In the coming weeks, I spun “Avocado Overlord” countless times, taking it in and enjoying every moment of it as I listened to the band sound so confident with their songwriting, presentation, and just their whole vibe.  There wasn’t anything else out there that sounded quite like The Hatters, despite a number of other bands having a sort of retro-tinged sound that recalled the bluesier side of the 70’s rock scene.

I'm not sure what an Avocado Overlord is either, but it must rule!

I have continued to spin “Avocado Overlord” frequently over the last 12 or 13 years since I first bought the CD.  I nearly bought the follow-up album “You Will Be You” on several occasions, though I was still so enamored with the debut I felt like anything else would be a let-down.  I was partially right, as the band’s 2nd and final studio effort just couldn’t quite compare to the debut.  It’s a fine album on its own, but compared to its predecessor, it doesn’t have the songs, and tries a bit too hard to capture a bit of the commercial flavor some of their peers had, though without losing what made them unique.  They succeeded musically, despite the obvious shift toward a more “alternative” and slightly chunkier guitar sound at times, but at the end of the day, the songs just aren’t as catchy, memorable, or well-written as on the debut.  Some of the lyrics (“The Naked Song” in particular) are also a bit clumsy, which didn’t help.  Despite these issues, “You Will Be You” isn’t what I’d call sophomore slump, it’s just not quite as strong as the debut.

Well of course I'll be me, who else would I try to impersonate?

Having said that, most people probably gloss right over this band’s releases in the bargain bin or the “H” section at their favorite CD store, and I’m guessing their iTunes and Amazon digital sales are abysmal, given the band’s lack of exposure.  This is a true shame, because “Avocado Overlord” in and of itself is one of the greatest under-head rock albums of the 90’s, and the band’s other work deserves to be heard as well.  If you find “Avocado Overlord” in the $2.99 bin and think to yourself, “It can’t be that good…” think again.  If you pass it up, you’ve made a big mistake and you’ll realize that if you then end up picking it up later, because this is some of the finest bluesy rock ‘n roll you’ll ever hear.

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