by David Haynes (@shooshlord)
B-Sides collections have a rich and powerful history. Some of my favorite songs were never put on an album. Nirvana’s “Aneurysm” never made it onto Bleach, Nevermind, or In Utero, yet it’s such an incredible song. Pavement released “Harness Your Hopes” on a deluxe box set that included outtakes from the Brighten The Corners era, yet it was a live staple while the band was touring. Sometimes, perfect songs just don’t fit onto a record. Which brings me to this most recent record from Mr. Husband’s Kenny Tompkins.
When we last caught up with Kenny, he had just released Ocean Pines – a collection of lo-fi, intimate tunes under his moniker Mr. Husband. Now, Tompkins is back with a family of songs that didn’t quite make the cut on past records called Kenny Husband & The Husky Section. He’s not calling them b-sides; but rather, he’s referring to them lovingly as “husky bois” and, it’s clear that this is not a normal b-sides collection. What Kenny has done is taken the formula of a b-sides collection and made a solid, cohesive record out of songs from the past.
Husky Section begins with “Happy, Happy,” which is a tender song in the spirit of Ocean Pines without the tape hiss. Right off the bat, Kenny confirms that this is a record that is showcasing the strength of his voice. All of the forthcoming songs are wildly different, but what ties them together is the brilliant, moving vocal performances. Lyrically, the song asks open-ended questions about aging and maintaining some sense of happiness. Kenny sings, “And in your hour of darkness, you stop and wonder why / all your best laid plans just leave you high and dry / There’s a chance you’ll come up short but still you’re gonna have to try / if you’ll ever be happy.” I think the character in this song is tired, exhausted from trying over and over again with the same results. Kenny’s voice sounds perpetually on the verge of breaking into a sob. It’s a clever, catchy song about the harsh realities of growing up.
The Mr. Husband crew has always had this knack for blending country, folk, and pop and making it seem absolutely effortless. The second song “Friends” is such a perfect example of this amalgamate songwriting. It’s catchy as hell, but not without that country twang in the vocal melody and that folk simplicity in the chord progression. The shuffling, floor-tom-and-snare groove provides the perfect backbone for the song’s lyrics about the ending of a friendship. In the chorus, Kenny sings, “I don’t wanna be friends no more / I don’t want you comin’ around / I don’t wanna be friends no more / Draggin me all over town.” The verses are short stories about receiving letters or sharing records. As we all get older, losing friendships is just a part of life. Relationships wax and wane, and Kenny’s tapped into the sadness in aging and friends coming and going.
“Stone Cold Killer” feels at any time it might break into a full band soft-rocker, but Kenny holds his own with just an acoustic guitar, tambourine, and vocal harmonies. While the first two songs have had that bittersweet, yet charming vibe, this song sounds desperate and haunting. The song deals with obsession and loneliness. Kenny sings, “Though I just can’t fake it when she comes around / I’m a feather-weight fighter laying on the ground.” The words here are such a perfect metaphor for the overwhelming, sometimes soul-crushing nature of infatuation. The tension builds as we expect a giant, full-band climax but it never becomes as big as we expect. “Stone Cold Killer” is a genius bit of songwriting and production.
Once again, “Sarcasm In The Courtroom” features that effortless blend of country, pop, and folk into a perfect soft rock song. The opening guitar lead sounds reminiscent of 90s country, and continues to weave in and out of the vocal melodies throughout the song. There’s some gorgeous echo on Kenny’s voice, making it sound far away and mysterious. The lyrics are a little bit more impenetrable than anything else on this record, with the idea of a “courtroom” maybe being an argument between lovers or friends. They’re beautifully executed vocal performances, and the whole vibe of the song is just perfect.
Up until now, this record has been sort of murky. The characters in these songs are adults trying to make the best out of rotten situations, or get out of situations their past forced them into. “Do You Love Me Too?” is the most endearing song on this record. It’s a stark departure. Gone are the acoustic guitar musings and spooky characters. There’s no music aside from Kenny’s voice and snapping fingers. It’s a song about young love, and hoping that your crush loves you back. It lightens up the mood a little bit, and is a perfect fit on this collection.
“Anybody Else” feels connected to earlier Mr. Husband records like Plaid on Plaid and Silvertone. It’s got that warm, clean electric guitar shimmer that Kenny is so damn good at cultivating now. Following in the footsteps of the previous song, “Anybody Else” is a semisweet love song. Kenny sings, “This boy needs gets lonely and this needs love just like anybody else.” It’s an almost pastoral sentiment, a desire for domesticity and affection. In the verses, there are some very surfy leads that compliment the melody. All in all, it’s a fun, jangly soft rock ballad.
My favorite song on this record is undoubtedly “Punk Rock Hairdo.” The song is about a kid who wakes up and realizes his punk days may be behind him. The phrase “punk rock hairdo” is sort of silly, but it’s such a perfect metaphor for this concept of aging that Kenny has been expounding upon this whole record. In a quiet, almost timid performance, Kenny sings, “You don’t know what it’s all about / and your punk rock hairdo’s all grown out / You don’t know what you’re gonna do / And you’re looking just a little long in the tooth / the sun is rising every day.” If there is ever a “coming of age” song, it’s this one. And in a way, it’s one of the most heartbreaking songs on the record. Just like that moment in Charlotte’s Web where Fern leaves her barnyard friends to go on carnival rides with a local boy, this song reveals a coming of age story that doesn’t end with our hero living on a clean, idyllic farm forever. At some point, we all have to give up our punk rock dreams and live in the real world. Kenny’s gentle, sympathetic voice helps us to feel alright about accepting this bitter truth.
“End of the Story” is another shuffling, alt-country jam. Beginning with some harmonized vocalizations, the song eventually unfolds into an upbeat, but still lonesome song. The song seems to be about trying to tell a friend you understand their sadness. Kenny sings, “Oh, there was a time / When it was blue straight through my spine.” It’s those kinds of lines that showcase Kenny’s love for old country western artists like Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt. It’s incredible to hear someone reinterpret their themes without sounding too heavy-handed. Throughout the song, the vocalizations from the beginning come back and take on different forms. They are reversed at the end of the song, giving the record some sort of trippy closing moments.
It’s sort of impossible to feel bad about the world after listening to one of Kenny’s records. There’s a recognition of the cruelty and sadness in the world, but something about Kenny’s humor and childlike wonder that make me feel like life is worth living. Songs like “Punk Rock Hairdo” and “Friends” are incredible pieces of American pop songwriting, and this record is chock full of delicious, hummable melodies. It truly is difficult to believe that these songs could have been written months, even years apart from each other. They feel so cohesive and thematically in sync. For a songwriter to be able to accomplish this across time is downright inspiring.
Do yourself a favor: listen to Kenny Husband & The Husky Section. I promise you’ll feel a little bit better about the world.