If it weren’t for labels like Drag City, an obscure folkie such as Gary Higgins would likely be a blip on the radar—a blurb in the Acid Archives and perhaps a song or two on a Numero compilation. Instead Higgins’ largely lost debut, 1973’s Red Hash, is part of a pedigree of tragic folk records that transcend to a level of influence and head obsession. When Drag City “found” Red Hash in 1995, it became part of the curriculum, and as a result, Higgins came out of his hermitage. Of the 36 years it took to make his sophomore album, Seconds, the story is vague, and despite some anecdotes of late nights and love, it’s impossible to assess if that life was completely normal or fraught with past skeletons.
Interpreting Seconds is beside the point. It’s a record that could be viewed from the perspective of another chance, or better yet, just another helping of Red Hash. The first track, “Demons,” lends some insight. Over a delicate weave of acoustic threads, Higgins reminiscences about how a companion “drank all of the sparkling red wine and snorted your coke line by line” with a voice pastoral, the aging uncle in the guise of Robert Wyatt. The song even includes a harpsichord solo, further perpetuating the link to intricate British folkways. This is 2009 and it would be unfair to expect Higgins to keep to one setting, there are modern shakes at full-band arrangements that don’t quite adhere to what you might expect from a lost stranger’s prolonged comeback. “Mr. Blew” and “Don’t Wanna Lose” are perfectly replaceable, but those are hiccups once his subtle triumphs take hold.
For starters, “Little Squirrel,” despite a literal tale of said mammal, it’s eerily intriguing. Two songs in and Higgins starts lying on the new age organs and dungeon prose, a lumbering but consuming four minutes of dirge akin to the tortured darkness of Scott Walker. When Seconds succeeds, there’s a unique balance between orchestral derangement and a mysteriously minimal calm. Even at the most traditional apex of the band (which includes players from Red Hash and Higgins’ son Graham), the pastoral breeze of “Ten-Speed,” there are hushed organs, winsome pianos and thoughtful guitar interplay encasing the tune. The epic “5 A.M. Trilogy” incorporates all of these touchstones, floating them around a lengthy freak-folk centerpiece, the absolute proof that Higgins has not lost his weird-streak, especially when it comes to playing.
It might take some adjusting, but simply realizing the epoch that separates this album and Red Hash is enough to sit in quiet awe for a majority of Seconds. Nowhere does Seconds make mention of place or time, giving it the same anonymous quality of Higgins’ first record. If it were not for the crystal clear production and the re-emergence of Higgins from the shadows, it could very likely have come from 1974. Hard to tell if it’s a blessing or a curse for these artists to be brought into the spotlight for their buried moments of genius. But then again, would Seconds even exist?
Kevin J. Elliott