The Guitar Virtuoso Who Also Writes Songs: Blake Mills

Blake Mills is the most inconspicuous “guitar virtuoso” you’ll ever hear.

There’s a certain recipe that must be followed in order to find, in order to experience, a great album. It goes something like this:

Part 1: Listen to the album a whole bunch.
Part 2: Listen to it some more. In the car, at breakfast, at 2am, in the shower, when you’re drunk, et cetera.
Part 3: Keep listening even though your girlfriend, after getting into your car, says: “You’re listening to this guy again?
Part 4: If it’s a great album, you’ll know by now. If not, stop listening immediately and trash it.

Blake Mills reminds me of that weird guy you see every time you go to the music store playing an expensive guitar quietly in the corner. The kind of guy who doesn’t play very loud, but if you happen to walk over and stand next to him and catch a listen you realize the guy is playing things you can barely even vocalize, playing the guitar like a coked-out fiddler. Was that a bad metaphor? Yes it was.

Blake Mills released his first solo album “Break Mirrors” in 2009. Growing up as Blake Mills must have been strange. He was born in Santa Monica and began playing the guitar at age nine. He went to high school with and played music with Taylor Goldsmith of the band Dawes. Whispers of this “kid who can really shred the guitar” must have made their way across town because from there, his musical resume reads like a show calendar for your local arena, backing and producing for Weezer, Pink, The Dixie Chicks, The Avett Brothers, Danger Mouse, Norah Jones, Lana Del Rey and, get this: Kid Rock.

“His first album he (played) me, I was like: ‘Why are you so weird man?” Kid Rock says about Mills in this great twelve-minute mini-doc that you can find here. “You’re such a great blues player. What’s with all the weird stuff, man?” You did good not taking musical advice from Kid Rock, Blake. That was a good move.

I keep seeing this album described as “Americana” or “folk,” and I sort of get the vague classification, but I think it transcends that. The whole mark of “guitar virtuoso” is absent here. These minute, subtle guitar licks and phrases permeate throughout the ten song album, but there’s not a single point where you hear a riff and think, “whoa.” The outro of “Hiroshima” and the chorus of “Wintersong” have some pretty memorable, but relatively tame guitar parts, but they’re the kind of guitar parts that become the song, not the kind that you show to your classically-trained friend. The decision to leave “the virtuosity” off the album paid off.

Late last year, Mills released his second album “Heigh Ho.” And the PR headline reads: “The wildly talented singer/songwriter will tour to support “Heigh Ho.” So he’s made the switch to the singer/songwriter. And the word “virtuoso” wasn’t even mentioned once! I bet he hates that word. He’s been hearing it since he was twelve. Take a listen to the album. It’s one to keep playing.

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