To be a substitute teacher in California, you have to pass the CBEST test. It’s a ridiculously easy affair, which I failed the first time around because of what administrators described as “inappropriate sentiments” in the essay section. My “inappropriate sentiments” were in response to this question: “We have all heard the saying ‘Every dark cloud has a silver lining.’ Please respond to this.” I think that statement is crap. What it means is that everything happens for a reason — something we are supposed to take comfort in. In my response, I wrote about a man who missed an interview due to car troubles and then lost his family and home and ended up dying alone on the street, lying in a filthy pile of rags. What was that man’s silver lining?
Micah P. Hinson’s bio plays up his dark clouds (past drug abuse, legal troubles, heartbreak) and presents his musical output as his silver lining. But I think the young Texan would bristle at such hackneyed representation. From his cracked voice on up to his profoundly simple lyrics, Hinson shows maturity beyond his years, maturity that understands that things don’t happen for a reason. Sometimes life is shitty, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes life stays shitty, and sometimes it gets better. The ability to take what you can from the bad times and use them to fortify your good times is what maturity means. If you need to take comfort in the thinly veiled predestination philosophy of such clichés — well, I’m sorry, dude.
Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit, Hinson’s second full-length, is one of the most dynamic and exceptional releases of 2006. It leans heavily on the old (country, folk, blues), but this isn’t dress-up; there is no image vetting. In a time when gimmick-driven bands such as the Killers and the Stills are playing out their classic-rock fantasies, the Springsteen-inspired brass hooks on Hinson’s “Jackeyed” and “Letter to Huntsville” ring with more honesty than anything else this year — hooks that make you feel something more than vague nostalgia. True too for the more indie-folk songs on the record, only M. Ward or Old Crow Medicine Show have produced purer Americana than the foot-stomping “Diggin a Grave” or the banjo plucked “She Don’t Own Me.” The album closes with an arresting death-ballad, “Don’t Leave Me Now.” A sample of Robert Johnson crawls under the fluttering of a reel-to-reel projector while the drone of a cello and a plaintive piano progression set up Hinson’s vocal delivery: “Don’t take me now/ I must confess/ Found the word digress and made it a home.”
Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit is a pure expression of turmoil, a cathartic release through art that skillfully avoids self-obsessed mawkishness. Hinson and his band members build frames of sound around his voice and words, enhancing but not burying, as often spare as engulfing. Good music that came out of bad times, no silver lining necessary.