August 1, 2022

Hemlock was the early-1970s brainchild of Scottish singer/songwriter/guitarist Miller Anderson, whose main previous claim to fame was that he had been the front man for the Keef Hartley Band. Hartley had been playing drums for blues supremo John Mayall, but split off to form his own outfit in 1968 – he needed a singer, placed an advert in Melody Maker, and Anderson got the gig, but also became the band’s main songwriter. A string of albums followed, plus an appearance at Woodstock, before Anderson was offered a shot at recording a solo album by the record label. Borrowing a number of members from Hartley’s band, Miller Anderson’s first solo album, Bright City, was released in 1971 to generally excellent reviews, and as sometimes happens, Anderson had a ton of material – far too much for just one album – so he recorded another with a slightly amended line-up. But here’s the twist: Anderson was so impressed with his musicians and the results of their labours, that he felt self-conscious about releasing the set under his own name, as if it was all his own work. And thus Hemlock, the band, came into being (not to be confused with the Las Vegas metal band of the same name, formed 20 years later). Sure, they were all Anderson’s own songs, and he sang and played guitar on all of them, but instead of being marketed as a straight follow-up to Bright City as originally planned, Hemlock, the album, was released in late 1973 as the new band’s self-titled debut.

Miller Anderson in reflective mood (photo by Michael Putland)

Whether that was a great idea is open to debate, because the band folded soon afterwards, leaving this album as the sole surviving record of this combo’s work, although Anderson went on to have success with Savoy Brown, T. Rex, Mountain and the Spencer Davis Group, and continues playing and recording to this day. He also appeared on Deep Purple’s 1999 recording of In Concert with The London Symphony Orchestra. The big news for Miller Anderson fans is that the ever-industrious Cherry Red label has got hold of both Bright City and Hemlock, with a view to releasing them under its Esoteric imprint. The first of these to hit the streets is Hemlock’s set, completely repackaged in a CD DigiPak, with a glorious 16-page explanatory booklet and four bonus tracks.

The first thing to say about the music itself is that Anderson was right to give the band credit. They are able to handle all the varied elements of the songs with alacrity, and the set takes influences from rock, blues, folk, and even gets funky in places. But they have an almost telepathic ability to rise and fall with the mood of the song, never a note out of place, never a drumbeat too much or too little. The music is lyric-led, so it never really rocks out, but neither does it hold back in the instrumentation; there is always plenty going on.

Album opener Just An Old Friend, a minor-key pop-rocker reminiscent of the Doobie Brothers’ Long Train Running, leads in with a great funky organ riff to start; some quiet saxes blowing in background, courtesy of guest musician Chris Mercer, lift the track subtly, and with a lovely melodic break at the two-minute mark, the scene is set. Mister Horizontal, a couple of tracks later, powers in with a rocking guitar riff and a full-on rock vocal. Groovy and funky, with a bit of tinkling piano at the end, the band is starting to show its versatility, but the highlight of the album is arguably the next song, Ship To Nowhere. Ambient noises from all instruments at the start begin to cohere after half a minute, with some atmospherically-reverbed cowboy harmonica thrown in. A slow, ambient ballad slowly builds via some lovely phased electric piano, with congas dropping in and out to add another unexpected texture, as does the crying-seagull guitar in the background. This really shows what they combo can do.

Broken Dreams starts as a pretty maudlin blues ballad, with a piano intro in the vein of Layla pt II. But again, it defies expectations by morphing into a slow rock with angelic, girly backing vocals giving it an extra dimension. The six-minute Young Man’s Prayer is a bemused lament about being indoctrinated into (and subsequently leaving) a fundamelntalist religious sect, with the line “It’s not what was taught, but the methods that were used,” standing out in the lyrics.

Four bonus tracks round out the original 37 minutes into something approaching an hour, and although Anderson may not have considered them his best work, they add more dimensions to an already varied album: the slow, country start to the Bo Carter cover Corinna, Corinna, with pedal steel in the background, gives way to a slowish Status Quo shuffle with the full band. A nice rock piano solo fades into the background when the vocals come back in, but keeps tinkling away, then the tempo doubles up for the last verse. It’s a great number, and maybe should have been in from the start, but perhaps its status as a cover version disqualified it. Beggar Man, which was a single B-side, is a decently heavy rocker with a Jon Lord-style keyboard intro and some excellent hi-hat work. Early versions of a couple of the album tracks are at least as good as the main album versions, adding more harmonica, congas, and some Bob Dylan-esque vocals.

OK, it’s not all light and roses; the early ‘70s production is a bit mushy and Miller’s excellent voice suffers somewhat as a result; the rocky bits are not as punchy and the tasteful bits are not as ambient as they would probably be today. But that’s true of most rock of the era, and if you’re into that sound and haven’t run across Hemlock before, then it’s probably about time you did. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long for Bright City.