When a dude can play guitar, he’ll let you know. The proof is in college parties, or any Joe Bonamassa record. But when you’re Blake Mills, you don’t have to prove you’re a virtuoso. After all, he’s got Eric Clapton to do that for him.
On his sophomore album, “Heigh Ho,” Mills keeps his dizzying fretwork to a minimum, letting his songwriting seize the spotlight instead. It isn’t on par with his other talent, but at moments, it proves him to be a double-threat. Fiona Apple brought Mills along for her tour last year, and he returns the favor on “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me,” a folky roots study in saving face in front of your girlfriends’ friends, even as Mills admits he puts himself on blast with his songwriting in the lyrics. Mills ponders love as a “misquotation” and “curable disease” on the closing track of the same name. Thanks to a few lovely finger-picked acoustic parts, it avoids curmudgeon territory, and instead sounds like a relationship pep talk. To his credit, he sounds studied on the subject.
More than any other philosophy, simplicity reigns here. Wood block percussion and softly brushed drums languidly crop up throughout the record to cut out room for acoustic guitar. But the two-chord vamps you expect to bloom in full at the end of any given bar simply hold the line. When his timid country twang rolls in, it’s to say you’ve been paying attention to the wrong part.
Mills finally lets ‘er rip on “Shed Your Head,” a long-form riff on the radiating warmth he’s established with the preceding 10 tracks. Even here, there are no unnecessary notes. Solos are muted, even disciplined, which is a term you almost never hear with regards to masterful guitar leads. That’s because “Heigh Ho” isn’t about Mills’ hands—it’s about his head. It turns out to be a worthy switch. “Heigh Ho” is a proper welcome party for Mills, out of the world of session players and into that of the venerable artist.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.