Human Reaction


Big Ego Records, 2023

REVIEW BY: John Mulhouse


There’s really no substitute for seeing a band live, and after watching mssv play their new record last month I find myself writing a somewhat different review than what I might’ve had they not come through my neck of the woods. Heck, with nearly all of September and October spent on the road and nary a day off, they probably passed through most people’s neck of the woods. They’re that kind of band.

mssv stands for Main Steam Stop Valve and Human Reaction is their second record. The trio includes Mike Baggetta who, if I have my facts straight, is more or less the ringleader, with Mike Watt and Stephen Hodges contributing ideas and presenting a very formidable rhythm section indeed. Watt, of course, was in minutemen, fIREHOSE, Stooges, and a thousand other solo projects and collaborations. Hodges has played with artists as varied as Tom Waits and Mavis Staples. I believe Baggetta and Watt first played together in a group called Wall Of Flowers, with well-known drummer Jim Keltner. Hodges then played drums live for some gigs performing Wall Of Flowers songs under the moniker mssv. Meanwhile, see my Daily Vault review of Baggetta_Keltner_Watt’s Everywhen We Go album for what they’ve been up to recently, now operating eponymously. Point being, these musicians have been very productive as of late and know each other quite well by this time.

Billed as “post-genre,” this is somewhat experimental music, and Human Reaction is not exactly Cheap Trick. But nor is it so esoteric that you can’t tap your foot to it. That said, I found myself having a hard time finding a foothold on this album at first, relative to their more “straightforward” self-titled debut. The songs on Human Reaction seemed to take jarring turns and the tunes remained obscure to me. Then I saw Watt set his chair about two feet from Hodges’ hi-hat (yes, chair; Watt had an injured knee), with Baggetta positioned a couple feet to Hodges’ right, and watched a deep conversation take place. And that’s when I finally cracked this record. Baggetta, Watt, and Hodges were trading ideas, sharing emotions, and responding to each other in real-time. It’s a compelling thing to see/hear, but was just more obvious to me in the live context. And if that sounds like jazz, that’s no coincidence. More on that later. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The record starts with the propulsive “Say What You Gotta Say,” Hodges working the snare while Baggetta sings and plays shimmering, stinging guitar as Watt pulses underneath it all, making the blood flow. Midway through, Baggetta unleashes a wild solo, indicating that this will not always be easy listening. Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of gentle moments; second track “French Road Drifters,” an instrumental, alternates quiet, spidery “verses” with “choruses” of rolling snare and slashing guitar.

“Baby Ghost (From The 1900s)” is another instrumental, with Baggetta laying a flurry of notes over Watt and Hodges unhurried loping. “Pillow Talk” drifts in with Baggetta and Watt trading antonyms as the tension builds before Hodges punctuates the proceedings with a series of tumbling fills. Then it all happens again. Live this was one of several songs that made it clear how important Hodges’ inventive and idiosyncratic percussion is to this ensemble. His tom work is intricate and lyrical, his contribution to this three-way conversation crucial.

Side two begins with the title cut, a flat-out rocker run through with elements of Gang Of Four and Pop Group, and perhaps even a bit of the funk underpinning those bands. My favorite song on the record finds Baggetta trading the title words with Watt and Hodges at the chorus, and his guitar scratches and scrapes while Watt, most likely my all-time favorite bassist, provides plenty of gravity.

“Junk Haiku” takes things down again, Baggetta picking along with Watt’s creeping bass line as the song ebbs and flows. Hodges adds increasingly emphatic percussion until the song comes to a cold stop. Watt and Hodges lock in on “Pity Parody” like a jazzier Wire, while Baggetta says what he needs to say with just his guitar, strings bending and buzzing. “In This Moment” is a lovely way to end the record, a quiet swell with plucked notes, hushed drums and cymbal wash, and slowly cascading bass. Baggetta adds western poetry, desert imagery that intertwines with the music’s pelagic feel. Well, you know what they say; if you like the sea you’ll probably like the desert. It’s the big horizons, and the horizon feels very big as Hodges snare sounds something like waves breaking on the shore as Human Reaction fades to a close. 

You know, way back in 1986, when fIREHOSE released their first album, Ragin’ Full On, a song called “Relatin’ Dudes To Jazz” contained the line, “How very important, two dudes talking.” The song was specifically referring to drums and sax, but 37 years later I saw three dudes talking with drums, guitar, and bass, and it was also very important. May it ever be so. Check out Human Reaction for a piece of the conversation.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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