You might think the song “Neutral Milk Hotel” on Jeff Hulett’s new solo album Around These Parts is about the seminal ’90s indie band, but you would be wrong — or at least half wrong.
“Back in the day, we were all obsessed with Neutral Milk Hotel,” says Hulett. When they were kids, he and his music-obsessed friends searched the internet for any snippets of music from the band, who only recorded two albums. “One of us found the song on Napster, and thought it was by Neutral Milk Hotel, because the title of the song is ‘Neutral Milk Hotel.’ But it’s not. It’s this band called the Gifted Children.”
Despite that bit of pioneering search engine optimization, the Gifted Children never approached the level of popularity of either Neutral Milk Hotel or Snowglobe, the band Hulett founded with his friends. But Hulett never forgot the song, so when he was looking for material for his first solo album, he dusted off the old mp3 and sang the refrain, “Let us sooth your open wound/And dry your crying eyes.”
Hulett will reunite with Snowglobe for the band’s annual holiday show at Railgarten on December 23rd, but before that, he’s got business of his own. He’s always been a team player — with Snowglobe, Jeffrey James and the Haul, Glorie, and, most recently, as the “me” with Leah Keys in the folk duo Me & Leah. But now he’s stepping into the spotlight with Around These Parts.
The nine-song collection showcases Hulett’s songwriting, and he likes to make them succinct, well-crafted, and meaningful. “It’s one of those records that people will like, because it’s a quick get. It’s fun, and it’s over before you know it. I’ve been very pleased with it.”
The road to Around These Parts started while Hulett was playing bass in Glorie, Jason Paxton’s instrumental band, which uses an array of orchestral tools like vibraphone to create lush soundscapes. It was a natural fit for Hulett’s talents.
Hulett convinced Paxton to produce a solo album.”I kinda took over his life,” he says. “He was still figuring out the equipment, so I was a guinea pig … It was a labor of love, really. He’s got a kid, so he’s busy, and I’ve got two kids. But it was this project that just kept going.
“I knew the songs I wanted to be on it. But some of them weren’t done. So it took some time to flesh those out. I wouldn’t say it was a concept album, but I do think there’s a general theme. My youngest child was born at the beginning of this recording process. So it’s about change. I was changing careers throughout, and having children, and people who I know and love were dying, and other children being born … the usual stuff, life and death.”
Paxton and Hulett called on old friends, like Jeffrey James and the Haul rhythm section Dave Schulter and Daniel Farris, and Snowglobe’s brass player Nahshon Benford, as well as new collaborators like violinist Jessie Munson, singer Kate Ryan, and multi-instrumentalist John Schallert.
“It’s about knowing my limitations,” says Hulett. “I can probably do a guitar solo to go on a song, and it’ll be serviceable. But if you can get Luke White to do it, you get Luke White. I’d rather it sound good than be territorial about it.”
The album’s theme of change and the passage of time bubbles to the surface halfway through, when “Tape” emerges from “Shoes All Muddy” with an Abby Road-esque segue, and Hulett sings “I don’t know what’s on this tape.” It’s a discovery, and re-discovery, of the stuff that matters most.
Hulett and his band will celebrate Around These Parts at Memphis Made Brewing on Saturday, December 15th, with a record release party starting at 4 p.m.