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Albums You Need to Hear: Chad Mills’ The Refrain

Review by Tim McLaughlin
Principle at Hapless Guitar Photography

Chad Mills will bring songs from his new album The Refrain to Radio Radio, in the Fountain Square neighborhood, on January 25.  The night will also see music performances by The Porchmen and the Upright Willies.

If you’ve seen Chad Mills over the last year or two, I would suspect it’s him, his guitar, a microphone, NO Pedals, belting out songs.  You know, jeans, flannel shirt, trucker hat with a nondescript logo, killer beard.

Now, if you’ve been lucky enough to see him play with a band you get to see an entirely different Chad Mills.  The beauty of nearly every song is that it translates to one man, one guitar…you get the picture. The biggest difference is his demeanor.  He smiles when he plays as a solo artist, but he when “leads” the band there is so much more emotion and energy.  It’s almost as if he’s two different performers.

Much like the types of performers, the tracks on his latest release feels like two different albums.  I’m not a fan of genres as they tend to pigeonhole the artist, and Mills is more than just a Folk or Americana artist.  This album, like his previous albums, is big on imagery, and if you pay attention you hear that he keeps his tempo with little or no filler measures between many versus.  I find it refreshing Mills doesn’t feel the need to fill space unnecessarily.

I had the pleasure a getting an advance of the new album, but instead of going over all 12 tracks I thought I’d give an overview with just four songs.  I’d hate to state something about a track that would taint it before you gave it a listen.  That would be criminal.

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“The Refrain”

The album’s first and title track “The Refrain,” checks all the boxes you would expect if you only saw Chad Mills as a Folk artist.  It opens with a strum of an acoustic guitar and has a feel of getting up on a Summer’s morning and describing a stroll in the park.  Mills really picks up the pace and it turns into an anthem feel with a measure or two of “La la la la la,” and then it kicks into an almost march tempo.  The crescendo of the song brings in a mandolin, accordion, and a very heavy-handed drum.  Not to mention the help of three backup singers.  This, almost power ballad, kicks off the album with a feeling that we’ll be seeing the band leader Chad Mills more than the acoustic singer/songwriter Chad Mills.  The track is upbeat and playful, and I really like the way it ends with “Life is out there for you to take you take you to ta-a-ake.”  Indeed Mr. Mills, indeed.  This track, like “Underdog,” “Rubber Bands,” and “Tailspin” bring together voices that aren’t hear together enough and that is with his sister Megan Mills Ojala.  These two have released an EP “Sibling Rivalry,” (worth a listen), and I was among a handful of people who had the pleasure of seeing them sing in the basement of Zionsville coffee shop some years ago.  The harmonies of siblings are very special and these two harmonizing is exceptional.

The next song I picked was “One Side Mission,” and it really picked up the tempo.  It was a precursor to what kind of songs are on the horizon.  This is certainly more Pop than Folk, with an interlude that has an almost Doors like spoken word vibe, and sinister kind of Joker laugh.  This is the kind of freedom and experimentation that I think Mills gets from not only playing with a band but writing tracks for a band.  The two things that jump out is the constant echo of Mills’ lyrics and the Summer road trip feel.  The song you’d have queued up as you “hit the road,” and an opening verse “Fine, this rig is coasting’.. a coupe rounds shy of plain ripped.”

“Greyhound South” is a quite heavy track that grabs your attention with a thick slide guitar and some pretty dark lyrics.  It got me wondering if there could be some autobiographical evolution to the songs.  Spoiler alert, I have been told that the lyrics are fiction but I’m having fun thinking about what kind of events might have led to them.  The most haunting line of the song, for me, was saved for last, “Now there’s whiskey on my breath, and a poison back in my bed.”  This song not only is an outlier on the album, but unconventional as there is no chorus, and the outro feels more like a solo.  Bravo for not sticking to the “norm.”

I asked Mills about the slide on this track which is Kessler Green.  Green was tracking his own album at the same recording studio and asked if he could play slide on that track.  Mills said it went down like this; “Green walks in, asks if he can play slide on the track, one take…done.”  Now if that doesn’t sound like Robert Johnson at the crossroads kind if lore, I don’t know what is.

Not to belabor my adoration for this song, but it is my choice for “movie montage song.”  Dark lyrics, slide guitar, whiskey, poison and Grey Hound buses (stations) how is this not a recipe for music video.

“Mannequins On A String,” of the four I reviewed is a really fun and very bare bones as it relates to instruments.  There are a couple of these songs where is just Mills on guitar and vocals, Wheat on drums, and B. Moldt on backup vocals.  That is it!  I found the song’s words to be mysterious and playful, “They all lookin so regal/ down to their cuffs & rings/ on display for the world to see/ these mannequins on a string.”  Who says the lyrics always have to have mean, after all what the heck is “Wonderwall” about?

I’m not sure if all of those who were on the album will be on stage at Radio Radio, but if they are not, I want to make sure you know who that are.  I personally haven’t heard of several of them but I wanted to make sure you know all of their names:

Brian Wheat: Percussion, Bass, Electric Guitar

Brian Noble: Piano, Accordion

Ron de las Alas: Mandolin

Kathy Martin O’Neil: Banjo

Grover Parido: Cello, Piano

Megan Mills Ojala: Vocals

Allison Moldt: Vocals

Brian Moldt: Vocals

Quinn Leach: Electric Guitar

If this is any indication of what we can expect in 2020, I am happy to see that Chad Mills is opening the new year with “The Refrain” and you should too.

About Tim McLaughlin

Zionsville resident Tim McLaughin considers himself a documentarian behind the shutter. The owner of Hapless Guitar Photography, he enjoys shooting music and sports related photos, and as he likes to say, “almost anything.”

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