Formed in the late 90s by Hillyer and bassist Steve Berg (who had played together in the Dallas rockabilly band Lone Star and the rock band Strap) and soon joined by Aaron Wynne (steel guitar,) guitarist Chris Clarity (a veteran of Jack Ingram's band) and recent newcomer, former Toadies drummer Mark Reznicek, EHS wasted little time in getting its music heard across Texas, playing not only honky-tonks and Texas music festivals but also rock joints. Broken Dreams is the band's fifth release in four years (preceded by 1999's Welcome to 1100 Springs and Live at Adair's, 2001's No Stranger to the Blues and last year's Straighter Line.)
This EP marks EHS' first release on a new label, Dallas-based Last Beat. Last Beat is home to many indie rock acts but up until now not the kind of place anyone would expect to find, well, a country band. Which is fine because Broken Dreams sounds like nothing EHS has ever done before, live or in the studio, and chances are they'll never sound quite like this ever again. It's not the first step in a new direction or a sign of things to come. It's exactly what Hillyer and his band mates say it is: something a little different. Just for the moment, just for the hell of it.
"We tried to choose some stuff that we wouldn't normally do" Hillyer explains. Which shouldn't suggest that the five songs collected here are haphazard, throw-away B-sides, because one listen reveals them to be the finest recordings the band has yet committed to tape. They just wouldn't fit quite right on a "regular" EHS album. By and large, this is a band that makes its bread and butter playing straight-up, hard-core honky-tonk music. They may indeed look like"long-haired, tattooed hippie freaks," but EHS are country to the core. Not that frat-crowd pleasing "Texas country" or even No Depression-certified "alt-country" mind you, but country.
EHS's special guest, Kim Pendleton of Last Beat's critically acclaimed Vibrolux, is a woman with "a voice made of diamonds and coal," according to the Dallas Observer's Robert Wilonsky. "She's got a really neat character in her voice," says Clarity, who penned the EP's "Depend on You" a while back but held onto it, knowing it was perfect for the right duet treatment. And that's exactly what it gets from Hillyer and Pendleton, who the guys have known for years (former EHS drummer bruce Alford used to also play with Vibrolux). "Depend on You" is the most overtly honky-tonk track on the EP, its melody and nimble interplay of Clarity and Hillyer's lead and rhythm guitars over Aaron Wynne's steel ringing with the familiarity of pure Buck Owens.
EHS also recorded an upbeat cover of John Prine's classic 1971 ode to marijuana, "Illegal Smile," a selection certain to become a favorite at the band's live shows. "We kicked around ideas about what John Prine song to do, and we thought about doing a couple of slower ones," admits Hillyer. "But the tempo of the EP is kind of slow anyway, so we tried to pick it up just a hair with 'Illegal Smile.'" Their arrangement begged for a sing-along, so EHS invited honky-tonk friends Max Stalling and Jason Boland to Last Beat studios to share in the fun.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is "Broken Dreams," penned by Clarity, Berg and band friend Kirk St. James . As Hillyer and Pendleton harmonize on lines like "Dreams are made for the broken hearted fools to fall through / I just want one broken dream to come true" over a mournful guitar line that sounds like a late night drive through the desert to Las Vegas, it's impossible to shake thoughts of the late Roy Orbison - or depending on your mood, filmmaker David Lynch. "Just Me and You," on the other hand, was written by Hillyer and Pendleton specifically for the EP. "I was thinking about her background in music and what she does, and I thought it might be cool to have something that wasn't totally traditional country - something with a bit more of a harder edge while still having a good melody," says Hillyer.
"We want to be as successful as humanly possible," says Hillyer, but not without stressing what, for these guys at least, seems to be obvious: pandering or bending to any kind of conservative, mainstream rulebook is out of the question. From the beginning, some so-called country fans and club owners have told them to cut their hair, cover their tattoos, and have that damn drummer put out his cigar and wear long pants, fer crissakes. But EHS are having none of it, and the moment they start playing, any and all complaints are quickly dropped. "I guess we look too much like Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson to be in a country band," quips Hillyer, "but it's a dead issue because at this point we don't really care, and the truth is, once the notes hit the floor, so do the feet.
"I personally take country music very seriously," he continues, with nods of agreement coming from everyone else in the band - including Alford, who not too long ago couldn't have imagined ever stepping foot into a honky-tonk. "My own personal aspiration is to continue to do work that I think stands up on its own, that I know I'll be proud of 20 years from now and I won't say I was just throwing it out there to try and please people."
Check out the artist's website:
1. Depend on You
2. Just Me and You
3. Broken Dreams
4. We Don't Need To Belong
5. Illegal Smile