Detroit Free Press: January 4, 2004
Whit Hill Nails It The First Time
January 4, 2004
For most artists who actually manage the feat, recording a masterpiece is a career-long effort. For Whit Hill, it took a single shot.
“We Are Here,” suffused with intelligence and champion songcraft, isn’t just the best debut album in recent Detroit memory, it’s one of the top 2003 premieres by anybody anywhere. That’s not giddy hyperbole; as word has spread since the disc’s fall release, the Ann Arbor singer-songwriter has quickly enlisted a crowd of true believers, and is likely looking at national notice before the new year is done.
Here’s why: “We Are Here” displays a surplus of versatile talent, a knack for straddling sounds as diverse as crisp pop and dyed-in-the-dirt bluegrass. “Sometimes I take a country road / Sometimes I take I-94,” Hill sings on the album’s intoxicating opening cut, “50 Miles to Detroit.” It’s that combination of sweet rustic sentiment and gritty world-wisdom that fuels the record, and makes it sound like the work of a longtime pro.
In reality, Hill is a late-coming first-timer — a middle-age mom best known for a career of highly rated choreography. “We Are Here” features songs quietly penned during the past decade, honed to deliver the kind of rich, poignant impact associated with Lucinda Williams or Richard Thompson in one of his Americana moods.
The PR hook here might be “Maddie,” a brisk stomp that summons up memories of Hill’s one-time U-M roommate and fellow dance student Madonna. But that whimsical tune is just a throwaway amid the album’s other 13 tracks, which dig deeper (“Oh Well”) and wider (“Valentine”) as they reveal Hill’s ability to make both word and melody come off as poetry.
Hill gets ample help on the back end from her ace backing band, led by husband and guitarist-keyboardist Al Hill (of the Love Butlers). But it’s the songwriting and earthy voice of Whit Hill that carry the day here — and that promise big things for the future, if she wants it.
By Brian McCollum, Free Press pop music critic