Reality meets science fiction on Hank West & the Smokin’ Hots‘ recent release, A Message For the Yogi. “It gets hard in space / when you’re a rock star out on tour / it can be hard when every gig is one light year away,” frontman and trumpet player Henry Westmoreland sings on the title track. “But the people want to see him / and you know he wants to play / if he’s trapped between the drugs and stars / it doesn’t seem to matter anyway.” The playfulness is underscored by a palpable reality — possibly a reality that hit close to home for the local band. Shortly after the release party for this record, produced by Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers), the band announced its last show (a pool party at Aloft hotel). They’ve since made other appearances, so the demise of Hank West and the Smokin’ Hots seems to have been overstated.
If this album is anything to go by, it catches the group at a moment of high energy, fantastical ideas and tight musicianship — a combination that works for the heady and highly imaginative collection of songs.
The band has a knack for song titles. “Rocky’s Spicy Chicken” is an ode to the Asheville delicacy, “5 Headed Snake” is part funk, part jazz, part hyper-whimsy. “Which one’s gonna bite?” the lyrics ask early on. “It’s the one with the licky tongue.” Well, obvi. “Night Peach,” meanwhile, is right in the band’s sweet spot. The Latin beat, the the way the horn sparkles and the piano is wild and fast but all of the elements — no matter how close to the edge the whole prancing juggernaut comes — remain fused by the song’s own centripetal force.
One of the best things about Hank West & the Smokin’ Hots is that the band doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s always a wink, and that allows the fiction to come to life. But the retro panache, sexy rhythms and instrumental chops allow the listener to go deep into this other world, this vintage space-age Jetson-esque fantasy. “Crawl,” which seems to expand into its own nocturnal soundscape. It’s a mood as much as a storyline, a journey as much as a sonic experiment.
The album has its moments of wayward romance. The quick cha cha of “Ayano Kosune” recalls “the sweet perfume of memory” and lead track “Vaporwave,” a kind of devilish surf-rocker, declares, “It’s the nerdy girls that I love true.” But Hank West songs were never meant to be the stuff of shy, heart-on-sleeve mix tapes. Instead, it’s the fire and brass of “Ariel Insertion” with its snare rolls and James Bond theme-music feel, that comes closer to summing up the Hank West & the Smokin’ Hots aesthetic. Dance, dream, pull off an art heist or cause an international incident. Wear a sharp suit, drink a complicated cocktail, make an escape in a Cadillac with a jet engine where the V8 should be.
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