Among the laundry list of things Steve Earle is infamous for, one of the more benign (and accurate) notorieties he has to his name is having claimed that his mentor Townes Van Zandt was the best songwriter in America and that he would repeat the same on Bob Dylan’s coffee table with his cowboy boots on. While I am no Steve Earle, for better or worse, my personal Gripfasts will stand on most any table in my fair NYC and aver that Chris Mills is the best songwriter we have in Gotham currently. So there.
Yes, Mills is a Chicago guy, but he’s been in Brooklyn for a minute now, at least since signing to Jersey City indie Ernest Jenning Record Co. for 2005’s stellar The Wall to Wall Sessions. The exceptional Living In the Aftermath followed in 2008 to much acclaim, as did successful tours with Lucero and Ben Folds. All of these eventualities kept proper shoe care fresh in my mind, but as a fan, it does nothing to change the fact that it has been three long years since the release of Aftermath. While the odd local show has transpired and rumors of a new recording are about, the newest release from Mr. Chris Mills is Heavy Years: 2000-2010. As one might surmise from the dates referenced, Heavy Years cherry-picks from the previous Ernest Jenning releases, pairing it with a handful of earlier solo material and sweetening the pot with two new tracks recorded with Dalek boardsman DJ Oktopus (government: Alap Momin) just to keep things interesting.
Things open with a new track mixed by DJ Oktopus called “All Our Days And Nights.” I had not foreseen goodness with the Dalek connection, having invoked the time-honored Chalk and Cheese™ clause (known Stateside by the generic invocation of Judgement Night), but the bastard union of that which is the brooding dark hip-hop of Dalek and the brooding dark hip pop of Mills on Heavy Years is a pretty unobtrusive union. There are some interesting keyboard and panning things going on, but the genetic split leans heavily in favor of Mills’ side of the family, and ultimately it’s another great Mills song.
“Atom Smashers” follows, kicking off the retrospective portion of Heavy Years nicely, though it perhaps conveys a false sense of optimism for the aforementioned “heaviness” to follow. Of the 14 tracks, three each are cherry picked from Living In the Aftermath and The Wall to Wall Sessions. These six tracks are a suitable teaser, neatly encapsulating the singer-songwriter’s Ernest Jenning years. More significantly, it speaks volumes to his versatility. Mills has manifested his music in various ways over the past decade but remains compelling regardless of whether the format is solo acoustic, string-bolstered chamber pop, or a conventional rock band. The relationship seems to have been fruitful for both Mills and Ernest Jenning, or at least as fruitful as the industry can afford in this day and age.
Mills is too familiar with the perils of label ownership, having helmed his own Powerless Pop label to release his early recordings. For newer fans, having access to choice tracks from those years makes Heavy Years an alluring proposition, but those items are still in print. Having access to early Mills stuff from his time on Chicago indie Sugar Free is an even more alluring proposition. The split is three to two for tracks from Kiss It Goodbye (Sugar Free, 2000) and The Silver Line (Powerless Pop, 2002), including “Watch Chain” and “Sleeptalking,” and closing with the no less exceptional a decade on “Signal/Noise.” It is interesting that his pre-millennium Sugar Free material (two EPs and a full-length) is excluded outright. While Mills had yet to find his voice (literally and figuratively), those songs are far from terrible, nor totally unrepresentative of his earlier Sugar Free material.
That said, whether the tracks date from 2011 or a decade previous, those compiled on Heavy Years: 2000-2010 are among some of the best songs you’ll hear. Ever. Interested table standing offers can be forwarded through the management.Visit: Chris Mills | Ernest Jenning
Purchase: Insound | eMusic