Magilla Shuwall’s A Place In The Hills takes its name from property that has been in the singer-songwriter’s family for generations. That place is known as “The Hills” and is located in Southern Illinois’s Hamilton County. The record has a southern feel to it; the songs are steeped in an acoustic alt-country vibe. Aside from his solo project, Shuwall is also the saxophonist for the Flashback Blues Band and is well known around Southern Illinois’s open mic scene.
A Place In The Hills opens with “Runt Cats” which captures in the beginning the types of images and occurrences which small town life begets. Over an acoustic guitar Shuwall croons about a litter of feral cats, remarking, “See them little runt cats a-playin underneath the rusted car / They’re gonna have twenty kittens of their own before they haul it away.” It becomes apparent from the start that Shuwall knows this territory well and that he will draw on all its nuances to create a larger whole, much like a painter does.
These nuances of place continue to take shape on the breakup themed “Guilty Place.” Here Shuwall further invokes the nature of the hills as he softly laments, “Those ancient trees, those gentle autumn breezes / the animals who hunt and chase care not for our stay / but they would have seen prey / in the corners of a guilty place.” The song ends on a happy note with a breakdown of finger picked guitar and ragtime piano.
“The Lifeguard” is a tongue and cheek tale of a lifeguard and a boy named Sonny. “Chop Shop” is an upbeat alt country rocker with hints of that James Taylor art of storytelling through song. The alt comes off with the straight country antics of “My-Baby's-Here Smile” on which Shuwall trades verses with Evil John Wilson.
Shuwall branches out a bit on the experimental “The World Waits” which changes up the tempo, going from slow piano ballad, and shifts into a rollicking ballad that includes thick R&B bass lines, and then shifts into an experimental lounge act sound. “Auten’s Pizza” is a funny alt country rocker about a local pizza joint whereas “I Still Love You” sees Shuwall affecting a faux English accent and sounds like an ode to the early years of the Kinks.
There are definitely times on this mostly lo-fi recording that would have benefited from a richer sound, though all in all A Place In The Hills definitely wins at invoking a sense of place, and the types of characters who inhabit America’s small towns. For anyone who’s been sheltered by a large urban environment their whole lives, this record may make you want to get out of the city and see the beauty of what you’ve been missing.
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