Sensitive Robot – Hush Puppies – A Musical Story – Album Review
I’m all about it…but that kinda makes sense, given the fact that Sensitive Robot is involved.
Though this is far from the typical record that comes my way…how could I not appreciate the combination of a story & music as one? A collaborative project at that? With Sensitive Robot involved – did I mention that already? To say I’m excited about this would be to put it mildly – I’m into just about anything different to begin with for sure, but this is the kind of art-minded project I can totally get behind. Hush Puppies – A Musical Story is exactly what the titles implies it will be – and it’s excellent!
That being said…if you’re familiar with the past postings we’ve put up by Sensitive Robot, you know you’re likely in for a whole flood of emotions as this album plays from start to finish…with plenty of pit-stops along the way that’ll likely have you reaching for the Kleenex from the bittersweet melancholy & melodies created by this Rob Johnson-led project. Teamed up with Evan Marquardt in production, and featuring words by Kevin McNally, who wrote the accompanying book that comes with this record to make the entire experience complete – you’ll find everything in Hush Puppies – A Musical Story is all interconnected between the narration & the songs included, just like you’d be hoping to discover. The results have all that magic of a musical production without having to make your way to Broadway to go see it…you can put this record on and practically see in your mind how this would all play out on stage.
Kevin’s words are essential inspiration…and the tale told is far from what most would typically expect; Hush Puppies – A Musical Story is devastating at multiple points, but as a whole, the entire length of this record boldly explores a massive range of emotions that you’ll find could just as likely make you smile as make you cry. From what I understand from the information online, this is all based on much of Kevin’s actual story…like, as in, real-life experiences y’all…and that certainly makes listening to the stories told upon this record that much more…sad…endearing…honest…human. As for presenting all this through the idea of combining songs & stories together as one – ultimately, I think this was a really fantastic idea and speaks strongly on behalf of all involved. As far as production, musicianship, and execution is concerned…there are no faults to be found here; but admittedly, in a project as unique as this is to begin with, they’ve basically got full license to write their own rules & playbook anyhow! The point is, you’ll find the quality is there, the story is fully engaging, cohesive, & impeccably detailed – and how the songs flow between the tale woven throughout Hush Puppies – A Musical Story…I mean…this is all built of great ideas & instincts. What Sensitive Robot & the talent surrounding them are doing stands out 100%.
And considering everything that goes into an album like this…the fact that it’s got about a dozen or more songs balanced out with stories in between on all sides…it’s almost strange that they managed to keep this whole ambitious idea to just over thirty-six minutes in length. That’ll tell ya lots right there – you’re in for quick narratives & short tunes – but with so much of both of these aspects flowing throughout this set-list, you’ll find the entertainment literally never stops. It IS a different kind of listening – I’ll concede that – I don’t know if this is the kind of record that gets a rotation every single day as opposed to being an album that you seek out for a specific mood you find yourself feeling – but that certainly shouldn’t stop Hush Puppies – A Musical Story from getting plenty of spins over the course of time. For the sheer fact that you just don’t hear creativity in action like this all that often in the scene, and the merits of its crossover ambitions & collaborative spirit…believe me, there’s plenty to love here.
The cleverness at work here really can’t be denied – this is art inspiring art, full-stop. Each part of the narration sets up the next song thematically, and you can hear how that relationship between story & song is completely connected as this album plays from start to finish. Not only that, but considering the fact that you’ve got serious pros contributing to the writing of a project like this, that bring equal caliber talent to the musicianship & production on Hush Puppies – A Musical Story…I mean, they’ve really got all the right pieces you need to explore creativity like this with the full confidence it’ll actually lead somewhere, you dig? Ambition like this can be tough for some to visualize from afar…and that applies even to the most seasoned of artists out there…it can take a while before the full picture becomes clear.
And then there are moments like this album, where it sounds like everything belongs together & always has somehow. Call me crazy, but that works for me.
I also really liked that I got to know the music of Sensitive Robot a whole lot more of course, but also that you can really see & hear the artistic fruit this whole tree they’ve been growin’ is coming to bear now. From the sheer aspect of songwriting alone, you can’t just pass over the merits of an achievement like this…to draw from Kevin’s words and form an entire musical around them? Come on now – that’s no small task whatsoever…but I have the feeling…Rob’s the exact kind of guy that thrives on creative challenges like this; you can certainly hear that he rose to the task throughout the songs on this record. But you’ll discover what I did…I only knew so many songs from Sensitive Robot to start, having featured cuts like “I Still Believe In Love” & “Rise” when collaborating with artist Alexx Calise, in addition to their own immaculate single “This Lonely Place” released last year, which put this project permanently on my playlists & on my radar. I knew the capabilities were there, the palette of emotions in the music was all-out brilliant…but yep, it was still great to hear that flexed in so many directions in this lineup of new tunes.
Now…I don’t wanna give the whole story away…that’s what makes listening to a record like this special and I ain’t gonna be the one to divulge ALL the details on this unique coming of age tale written by Kevin. Suffice it to say, LISTEN to this album – you’d be depriving yourself of the full story overall if you didn’t, so don’t do that! Every chapter of this story builds on the last and packs in an immaculate amount of detail. I’m a music guy; despite being a writer myself, I still know where my lane is, I know my limits, & I stay within’em, as they say…but you’ll certainly see all kinds of clues revealed as to what this musical is all about based on a few observations I can make about the songs you’ll find throughout Hush Puppies.
You get your credits as you meet voice-over specialist Toni Corliss as your narrator – and within mere moments, you become immersed into Kevin’s story, as told through the perspective of his mother as it begins. It’ll tell ya the tale of moving around as many people do growing up, and even though there is that aspect of trepidation for justified reasons, there is also a whole lot of hope & possibility ahead, all feelings of which play into the opening track “My Name Is Kevin” as he settles into a new school. Dude’s seven at this point in time, and Sensitive Robot does an exceptional job of bringing that young kid’s perspective to the lyrical details, and to the playfulness of the song itself. Again, in the context of this being a musical – you pretty much can’t ask for a better introduction to a character than a cut that even announces his name in the main hook…this is Kevin’s tune, the gateway in to the music on this album, and in many ways the first impression that carries the most impact because of how this whole experience flows. You learn that, when story time is over, the music begins…and your brain starts to piece together how this whole album is gonna work as you listen…then you start tying the stories into the songs & realize how essential each are to each other…I’m tellin’ ya folks, this was an all-around really good idea and it’s remarkably well thought-out from beginning to end. I could honestly listen to Corliss read the phonebook when it comes right down to it; thankfully she’s got much better material here in this context to keep us all entertained.
Detailing a family life that is held together by the thinnest of threads at this point, the story continues, and we run into themes that take a downtrodden turn into medical issues…specifically the cancer battle of someone all too close to what was left of Kevin’s “home.” I found myself bracing as the music began, because I know the potency of a Sensitive Robot tune when this project turns towards the softer side of their sound and heads into the melancholy…I’ve been there, I’ve heard it, I’ve drained the Kleenex box, and I know better now that I’m educated about the music they make…so I’m as ready as I can be. In tandem with Kevin’s story, there’s not a doubt in my mind that the first lines Rob sings in “The Last Goodbye” should crush most people into the tears I’ve been hinting at…a real case of ‘how’ it’s being sung…that fragile emotion catching right in his throat as he tries to get these words out for us…you can literally hear in the performance that he’s really feeling this moment just as intensely as it’s been written. Wonderfully well-composed…”The Last Goodbye” is like a modern-day lullaby at its finest – a comforting song that you can’t help but feel a little bit better yourself after listening to it. I ain’t gonna lie…not that it’s at all related, but the last days here have been just a LITTLE STRESSFUL with the state of things in the world…to say I’ve been seeking out the calming beauty in this gem is an understatement. The perspective in this song is as absolutely gorgeous as the sentiment itself, “The Last Goodbye” is a highly delicate & genuinely strong tune all at the same time, and it makes for a real highlight early on.
Like for real…listen to how this story begins to continually incorporate the music more & more…it’s freakin’ genius and plays right into all the strengths that a musical should really have in its structuring. You hear the set up coming in the words, you feel the music start to join in as the tale continues, and when it’s time to rock or let the music rip, Sensitive Robot is right there at the ready to take over. Rock would indeed be the case this time around – this is the most amped-up I think I’ve heard this project be in what I’ve heard from them so far…and no surprise whatsoever, it’s yet another style/approach/sound that Sensitive Robot can fully thrive & thrill inside of. Thematically, this is aces…and I’ll tell ya why that is, because it is a bit of a shock & a jolt to hear the music ramp up so much within the where the story takes you at first…but pay close attention – I’m tellin’ ya that shift in sound makes more sense than ever here. While we’re not talking the extremes of Metal sound and more like something closer to Ben Folds rockin’ the suburbs – there’s no doubt that you can hear a thrashing energy come roaring to life on “A Little More Time.” I LOVE the guitars on “A Little More Time” – to the point where I don’t know how any listener wouldn’t feel the same about what they hear – that’s the essence du ROCK right there folks…the distortion, wild solos & soaring tones are pure perfection. In context of the storyline, it makes absolute sense…this is that rage, rage, against the dying of the light moment that we all feel in some way, shape, or form, at one point in time or another – sometimes as an act of rebellion, sometimes a reflection of the sheer desire for more LIFE. If you’ve ever been around this moment in time for a person you love that feels they still need “A Little More Time” – you know it’s one of the hardest, yet most inspired moments you’ll ever witness before your own very eyes. My own grandfather, who battled cancer at something ridiculous like 95 years-old, went in to the hospital telling my dad he ‘wasn’t done yet’ and needed “A Little More Time” – can you believe that? Heartbreaking, but inspiring all the same. And he was right – he went on to live to 101…but unfortunately, this isn’t his story and not everyone’s so lucky.
“Kevin’s Mom Verse 1” will spell out the gravity of the situation for ya in the most heartbreaking & real details you could imagine to find. Classic Sensitive Robot right here in many ways, the bittersweetness of this song is rampant…and these thoughts, feelings, and emotions on display head straight for your soul. You’ve been able to tell this story of Kevin’s was building towards this moment, sure – but it definitely doesn’t make the impact any less severe or dull the power of its severity once you get there. This is a tough moment on the record and in the story…and chances are, you’ll feel the weight of that.
From here on in, his Mom is still in charge of the narrative…but absent in the actual story overall, with Kevin’s life about to change in countless ways; beginning with being shipped to Panama to live with his biological father…who…well let’s just say, he’s got a few flaws on display when we first get introduced. I think this is an outstanding part of the writing & story that exists on this record and how it’s been told to us…and I think in the subtext, it also speaks to the fact that the people we love are never really gone. Kevin’s Mom is looking at this whole situation from afar now, and in her own version of hell, it’s like her children have basically been sent to live in the jungle with what are basically strangers, bugs, dirty water, and substandard living conditions on all-fronts. “Welcome Home” exemplifies the children-in-the-wild aspect, or gives you that feeling that they’ve been thrown to the wolves to wander the jungle in the dark & find their way through to the rest of their life. Listen…I don’t know much about the actual constructs of what hell is like, but this is as powerful of a torture as I can imagine there could be, especially for a mother who passed before her time…that’s some next-level imagination right there…a bit twisted really, but perhaps accurate – none of us will know until we get there or the other place I suppose. What I do know is this…if they’ve got big tasty bass-lines, neon vibes, and rich harmonies like this in hell…I might have a real hard time resisting the urge to go downwards instead of up when my time officially comes.
The illusion of ‘home’ gets shattered yet again, the Kevin & his siblings basically being completely abandoned way the heck out in the middle of Panama somewhere. Nice guy this father is. Summed up perfectly in the opening line of “Kevin’s Mom Verse 2” – it begins with: “Kevin’s Dad tried…a big overstatement…” – and nothing sounds like it could be more truthful in the context of this scenario. Lines like “not being home became his place to hide” are also powerful in describing a father that clearly had no intentions of ever really being one…all of this is a huge homerun for songwriting, and it’s presented through one of the short cuts on the record, while making one of the biggest impacts on us as listeners and in the storyline, in the process.
And quite honestly, I know I’ve probably said this a couple times at least by now, but Corliss really nails the narration so impeccably…and this whole story Kevin’s created is so well designed…I mean, it’s a TRUE story yes, but it’s told with incredible detail and keeps us all engaged with every new one revealed – this is one serious rollercoaster of emotions! Like…the VENOM that comes along with the twist in this plot (lol – the twist in this plot, he says, like there haven’t been several already…) on “You’re Not Getting Them Back” is a HUGE moment on this record where you can hear the savage instincts of good people (new characters to the story, Rosie & Ron) kick in to rescue these kids from their plight. Like, you know things are bad when one of the questions they have to ask these children is whether or not they even have RUNNING WATER – you feel me? So the aggressive & amped-up sound you’ll find comes with “You’re Not Getting Them Back” is again, 100% justified and an insightfully perfect pairing with the sentiment driving the narrative & song. It’s a moment of courage, a moment where the heroes show up, a moment where good begins to triumph over evil…I mean, c’mon now folks…you know you love a great story that has all these things in action. Listening to the SNARL that comes along with the main title line from the vocals is deadly serious…it’s every bit as much of a declarative & firm statement as it is a complete threat and verifiable warning. Love it.
Alright so…you go from a situation where children are being asked about running water & whether or not they even HAVE THAT…you ride through the rampage of “You’re Not Getting Them Back” to victory – and now life’s getting pretty sweet in the land of high-quality sound & a vinyl collection – talk about a full 180-degrees! I’m sure the real-life version of Kevin’s story probably took a bit more time to get from point-A to point-B in reality…but hey, we’ve got entertainment in mind here as well and we gotta keep this tale here movin’ on quick to get the majority of the details in. That being said, incidentally, it never feels rushed…even a moment like this where the storyline advances more dramatically still has the superb effect of feeling like you’ve just started a new chapter, so it’s plenty cool, it’s natural, and it fits. Case in-point, we flow straight into meeting another good Samaritan in “Fay Diamond,” a song about another kind soul that steps in to assist Kevin & his brethren by arranging them a flight back to the USA at long last. Leaving Panama behind, the reasons for going are sad…the cloud hanging over the heads of this family never seems to want to fully subside so they can just get a moment or two of reprieve – but on the bright side, they’ve finally escaped the madness of being so far away from home and have the opportunity to reset back in the US. I’ll tell ya this much, which the song makes crystal clear as well – the world needs a whole lot more people like “Fay Diamond” out there. A gorgeous tributary tune, this is an absolutely charming song in every conceivable way you can think of…literally one of the most heartwarming moments you’ll find on Hush Puppies – A Musical Story – you’ll fall in love with this one.
Back ‘home’ in Chicago, you’ll learn that this whole story goes even deeper and starts to get litigious. Safety & security is one thing…but seeking out complete emancipation is certainly a whole other issue, and I can only imagine that even under the worst of circumstances, coming to that conclusion as the answer for one’s self would still never be easy. Suppose I can somewhat speak on that firsthand…I didn’t go the legal route perhaps, but I know what it’s like to make survival decisions that separates you from your parents permanently. Sometimes you have to measure things objectively and summon the courage you need to find in order to just be okay…”Better Off Without You” will approach this topic the storyline leans into with a comforting wisdom in the mix & uplifting sound in-store for ya. Once again, you gotta hand it to Sensitive Robot for finding the right gears and energy to suit these themes & songs – and of course the amazing tones in those bass-lines whenever they show up – but listen to the demeanor of “Better Off Without You” and recognize that you’re essentially hearing the weight that’s been on Kevin & all concerned in this story start to come off – which is exactly what this sounds like. You can almost feel it, second by second, and each time the chorus comes around, singing “Better Off Without You” becomes like a reinforced confirmation that grows stronger with each spin in repetition.
Even as things brighten-up somewhat, there’s still the incredible contrast of conflicting emotions that would arise in each scenario presented throughout this story. Like as we’re heading towards the end, Kevin and his sisters will experience yet even more separation between their family, as they’re put into the foster care system & bounced around a bit again. On the bright side, this time around, things are looking solid for the future as Kevin moves on up like The Jeffersons did into the ol’ cushy life in the suburbs. “Nowhere Is Home” is another really excellent song/concept you’ll find on Hush Puppies – A Musical Story…it’s actually a tune I’m quite happy has been created really. It’s impossible to describe what moving multiple times & constantly is like to people that have been in the same house for their entire lives, passed down through generations etc. etc. on the family homestead or whatnot – but for those of us who have experienced a life like that, you’ll find it perfectly depicted in the sentiment of “Nowhere Is Home.” Because that becomes the truth – nowhere, and by proxy anywhere, is where home is…and there’s a blissful freedom that comes with this detachment that’s unlike anything else I can describe. Thankfully, Sensitive Robot has captured the essence throughout this song, so I don’t have to attempt trying to explain it – you can now listen to “Nowhere Is Home” and know exactly what this kind of vagabond life feels like and the beautiful perspective on the world it subsequently generates.
As the story closes with Kevin coming full-circle back to the place he’s always known ‘home’ to be more than anywhere else, in Phoenix – he’s now found his way out of the system & into a secure situation with a loving family named the Carsons. Personally, I love that this tale is told from the point of view of Kevin’s Mom the whole time, regardless of the fact that she passes on somewhere towards the end of Act I, she’s essential to guiding him both in life, and certainly within this story. And you know something? Hearing her sound satisfied with where Kevin ends up in life by the end of this tale has us all feeling exactly the same as she does…like we’ve been taking our cues on how to feel about much of this story all along, you’ve been right there with her the entire distance through Hush Puppies – and to feel that sigh of genuine relief towards the end of this story feels like we just lived through it all ourselves. “Kevin’s Mom Verse 3” brings the conclusion/epilogue to the entire journey; it’s where you realize that this was all so much more than just a mere tale of some kind…this was a life, these events were real, and they had a massive impact/ripple effect on the timeline to follow. Sometimes in life, it’s not always about having the perfect example in front of us to guide us into becoming better people – in fact, a lot of the time, it’s exactly the opposite examples that provide us with the best blueprint on how to be. Kevin spent a lifetime seeing a whole bunch of stuff that kids undoubtedly shouldn’t have to deal with – and as a result of that, in raising his own kids, clearly strived to be the best father & version of himself that he could be. History never has to repeat itself if you can find the courage, the will, and the reasons to change it – this story concludes with the happy ending it deserved after such a harrowing adventure.
This was a great move on all-fronts. Captivating story by Kevin, fantastic music by Sensitive Robot, excellent narration from Toni, and a stellar combination of art & music overall in this collaboration of dedicated professionals all bringing their A-game to something special & truly unique. Can’t say enough about it really, even though I’ve clearly tried – I enjoyed listening to every minute of this album and the story that comes with it…this is the kind of innovative creativity in the independent scene I love to find.
Find out more about Sensitive Robot at the official website at: https://www.sensitiverobotmusic.com
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