by David Haynes (@shooshlord)
Creativity is not always linear and does not always make sense. Neil Young went from writing pre-grunge on Rust Never Sleeps to recording Trans with synthesizers and vocoders in the span of three years. After 1975’s masterpiece Blood On the Tracks and 76’s Desire, Dylan pivoted towards gospel music in the latter part of the decade. Joni Mitchell went from making the folk masterpiece Blue to collaborating with jazz great Charles Mingus. You never can tell where someone’s mind will take them.
Maryland’s Mr. Husband, led by the enigmatic Kenny Tompkins, has been releasing collections of twang-infused, mellow indie rock for the past couple years. The production on those records has been pristine, with his clean arpeggiated guitar leads and smooth, silky vocals cutting through the mix like a knife. On Ocean Pines however, the production is stripped bare.
In his description of the album, Tompkins says he made this record “hunched over a 4-track, recording this music to damaged tapes that had been stored in my hot garage for over a decade and were always threatening to self-destruct.” Ocean Pines sounds like a record where a songwriter rediscovered the creative process. It’s an intimate record, made from the pure joy found in writing songs.
The album opens with “Ocean Pines,” an almost lullaby-ish ode to the beauty found on the ocean shore. Tompkins has remarked that this album was influenced by Hawaiian and country-western music. The vocal harmonies on this opener are lifted straight from that tradition. His voice is quiet here, singing in almost a whisper. There’s something about softly sung harmonies that is instantly calming. One can’t help but smile when you hear the line “We took our pup to the ocean pines.” On An Evening With John Denver, Mr. Denver talks about writing songs on a lifeguard stand looking out at the Pacific Ocean. “Ocean Pines” feels like the East Coast response to that sentiment.
“Morning Pupper” continues the hushed vibes of the title track, but adds some steel guitar into the mix. Instrumental tracks have to be done really well. Sometimes, it can be difficult to convey the same amount of emotion without lyrics and the human voice, but Tompkins manages to make this minute-and-a-half ditty sound like a sigh of relief.
Anyone who was a kid during the 80s and 90s was likely obsessed with dinosaurs after seeing Don Bluth’s 1988 classic The Land Before Time. “Dinosaur” manages to capture the childlike wonder over ancient beasts as it develops alongside that almost paralyzing need for acceptance and love. Tompkins sings, “This aching need for love / I dreamed that it was satisfied for once.” It’s reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ style of storytelling on songs like “Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” or more recently “The Only Thing.” It’s always a delight when songs contain multitudes; when songs make us simultaneously chuckle and cry. Mr. Husband has perfectly captured that act of reminiscence, or remembering the good alongside the bad in our past.
This theme is continued in the magnificent “1991 Bible Study.” When Post-Trash premiered this song earlier in the year, Tompkins remarked that it was about the time his family joined a cult. If your family was hyper-religious when you were growing up, you’ll no doubt relate to his account of a Bible study at his parents’ house. He sings, “All the kids gathered in the darkened den / Light as a feather / Stiff as a board / We lifted up our prayers.” For those of us who have since departed from the straight and narrow path, it can feel like the whole experience was a forced fever dream and Tompkins perfectly captures that grief in this song. Musically, the melody carries the weight of this sorrow. It feels like at any minute the singer might break into a soft, muted sob. While the performance on the record as a whole is superb, this track in particular is a highlight.
Mr. Husband picks up the mood a little bit with “Warm Things In Your Heart.” It’s a gorgeous, lighthearted country-western ballad. As the seasons change, Tompkins is reminding us to keep the spirit of summer in our hearts and minds. He sings, “The fire may just lose it’s spark / but I know the warm things in your heart.” Complete with a twangy guitar solo, this song is an endearing attack on seasonal affective disorder. Right after this track, we hear the second instrumental track “Evening Fluffer.” Complete with tremolo and slide guitar, Tompkins continues the gentle mood of the record on another gorgeous little song.
“Stranger For A While” begins with a Roger Miller-esque whistle. As we near the end of the record, it’s clear that Tompkins has done his homework, studying the work of great country songwriters. This song seems like a dedication to those all stars like Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt, starting with a conversation with his old man about how “nothing in this world is free.” On this track especially, Mr. Husband nods back to those incredible songwriters.
The final track, “Walking in a Foreign Land,” is a fitting end to a near perfect record. It’s a song about a spiritual retreat, which Tompkins describes as saying, “Ten long days no one spoke to me / my thoughts were skinny and mean.” If you try to understand this song in the context of the whole record, he and his friends from the Bible study have now grown up. They’ve made it out of the cult, and they’re better and stronger for it. They’ve come to understand that all the ups and downs of their lives have made something brilliant and beautiful.
The best records leave you wanting more. You just can’t get enough of them. On Ocean Pines, Tompkins has offered us twenty-two minutes of his soul. When the album ends, I find myself thinking, “I could have listened to that forever.” That’s how I know it’s something truly special.