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November 7, 2006

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Their names are Codeine, Xanax, Soma and Neurontin, the four horseman of Micah P. Hinson's prescription drug apocalypse. Because of a freak back injury, the Texas singer-songwriter had to take heavy doses of all four just to get through a European tour in support of his 2005 EP The Baby And The Satellite. Nearly crippled by pain, Hinson had to fight more than just sore muscles and paralyzing spasms during his recovery. The bigger monster was the return of an addiction he thought he'd slayed after his troublesome teen years.

As a youth, Hinson was once jailed for forging prescriptions and here he was, an addict in recovery forced to face his demons again. After a long hospitalization following the tour, Hinson went back home, but during his convalescence, he worked. Bed-ridden much of the time, he wrote and recorded a new album, Micah P. Hinson And The Opera Circuit, now out on Jade Tree, at home with musician friends from the Abilene area and Eric Bachmann, he of Crooked Fingers and Archers Of Loaf fame. The back story to the record, the slightly torn-and-frayed follow-up to Micah P. Hinson And The Gospel Of Progress, is fascinating and perhaps even more compelling than the sometimes raucous, yet often intimate and even elegant, alt.-country found here, but not by much.

Using a bevy of sophisticated string and horn arrangements, courtesy of Bachmann, as a backdrop to many of the record's 11 songs, Hinson deftly sews in light acoustic textures, scraps of harmonica fabric, and some nimble banjo picking to make a warm quilt of life-affirming Americana that's almost as colorful as Sufjan Stevens' Illinois. New and old come together in The Opera Circuit to create a Lambchop-inspired sound that would feel right at home on the stages of the Grand 'Ol Opry or Lincoln Center. The bittersweet interplay of violin and cello on "Little Boys Dream" brings together classical influences and the humanity of Hinson's storytelling in a way that's both emotionally moving and intellectually challengingly, while the dark, carnival-esque "Diggin' A Grave" attempts to bridge Appalachia, Tom Waits, Sixteen Horsepower and klezmer music, and does so effectively. Strange pairings like these make The Opera Circuit a delightfully wild ride with surprises around every turn.

There are mournful, sparsely acoustic ballads like "She Don't Own Me" – don't let the lively banjo intro fool you – and "Drift Off To Sleep" that could be bedroom conversations between an invalid and a loyal, longtime caregiver. Sandwiched between them is the semi-autobiographical "Letter From Huntsville," a song about California dreaming and how debilitating back pain is more of a hurdle to overcome to get there than physical distance. Splashy drums, honking horns and down-home banjo meet in a glorious, anthemic melting pot of rousing instrumentation, giving life to Hinson's desire to " ... get to California some day" and making it seem like the last wish of a dying man.

Death hangs over the piano-plinking closer "Don't Leave Me Now!" like a buzzard, the spare atmosphere lending added depth to soul-baring lyrics about " ... holes in myself" and giving way to a noisy conclusion of recorded voices and dissonant feedback. Hinson's work seems to have one foot in the grave and one on the gas pedal of life, always driving on and on to a place or a person who is miles away from him. Themes of separation, pain and optimism dot the country-and-western soundscapes, and are explored with stately grace, good humor and barely restrained abandon. The epic sea chanty "You're Only Lonely," a gradually building storm of horns, strings and unexpectedly loud rock guitars, talks of the ocean that separates him from a lover he wishes so fervently to embrace. Imagine the Arcade Fire and Vic Chestnutt on a boat with the Decemberists as a rogue wave smashes the craft to kindling and you get an idea of the majestic power harnessed by "You're Only Lonely."

Genuinely soulful and unhindered by a slavish devotion to traditional Americana, The Opera Circuit is a tour de force for Hinson. The arrangements are sublime, even awe-inspiring at times, and yet the melodies have a back-porch charm that glows like a jar full of lightning bugs. Proving once again that it's hard to keep a good man down, The Opera Circuit is a joyous salute to battling hardships and winning. Appreciate Hinson's sophisticated songwriting, let his easy, raspy vocal manner welcome you with a beer and a smile, and give the man your undivided attention. His stories are worth hearing time and time again.


Lost At Sea

Peter Lindblad