Harmonica Hinds – If Speed Was Just a Thought (2012)

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Mervyn “Harmonica” Hinds, a regular on the Chicago blues scene of decades, was once one of the best sidemen that nobody knew. That’s changed more recently, as Hinds has begun issuing albums under his own name in regular intervals. The latest – 2012’s If Speed Was Just a Thought, which follows Finally and Anything If I Could over the last four years – may be his most complete effort yet.

“Calling the Musical Spirits,” the first of 14 straight originals here from Hinds, begins with a trestle-rattling harp signature and this low levee moan – quickly setting a trance-like sense of portent on If Speed Was Just a Thought. As the track continues, though, Hinds begins to subtly, then not so subtly, pick up speed – like a freight train moments after topping a country hill. Soon, “Calling the Musical Spirits” has taken on a ferocious propulsion, with Hinds’ twin wails – on the harmonica and then at the mic – turning what was once an easy-going reminiscence into a heart-stopping ride.

“I Wonder” finds Hinds taking his first conventional vocal, and his singing retains that sense of slurred, dirt-path mystery. Hinds’ tandem work on the guitar begins to move to the fore, too, as he fashions an echoing rockabilly groove. The title track weaves all of these threads together, showcasing Hinds’ facility with a darkly intriguing lyric, with a gravy-dripping guitar riff, with a scarifyingly direct vocal and with a lonesome harmonica interlude.
From there, If Speed Was Just a Thought continues to brilliantly alternate between rumbling roadhouse songs (“Spices,” with its serrated rhythm; “She,” a gruff come on; “Mix Up,” which moves from melancholic wonder to a driving-rain beat) and these devastatingly emotional laments (the terrifying chain-gang hollers of “Blues Moan”; the end-of-your-rope cries of “I’m Bombarded”).

Throughout, Harmonica Hinds plays both the country blues and its urban-bred cousin with equal force and intellect.

As for the latter, “Kick It” perhaps best recalls the tough city blues of the early Chess sides, and that’s fitting since Hinds rose to early fame as a member of the 1970s-era house band at the legendary Theresa’s Lounge in Chicago – where he was joined on stage by mythical blues figures like Junior Wells. He’s worked as a sideman on albums by Koko Taylor, Eddie Taylor Jr., and Mud Morganfield, among others, and has appeared on stage with the likes of Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Louisiana Red, Willie Dixon, Magic Slim and Willie Kent.

You hear bits and pieces of those legacies throughout this moving, deeply personal journey of record. When Hinds, as part of a frank remembrance of hard times called “Traveling on This Road,” talks about “so many ups and so many downs,” there’s a bone-deep sense of authenticity.

That song’s clip-clop rhythm signature returns on “I Want to Know What Made You So,” this sharply worded complaint about a hot-and-cold love interest that ends up as one of Hinds’ better explorations of a relationship’s rugged landscape. Meanwhile, “Pretty Lady,” with its string-popping guitar signature, takes a similarly dim view of these matters of the heart, with Hinds recalling how a lover’s beauty couldn’t mask her propensity to stray. By the time he gets to “You Gone Too Long,” though, Hinds’ stance has softened some. Moaning behind a sharply insistent pairing of guitar and harp, he can only beg her to “come on home … please … come on home!”

There’s more to If Speed Was Just a Thought, however, than love gone wrong and love long gone. A strong sense of faith works as a backstory for the project, from its haunting opening cut to the fleet album-closer “Religion” – when Hinds, offering a wordlessly boisterous interpretation of salvation’s soaring gift, brings it all home once again.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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