Dark is the latest album by singer/songwriter Phillip E. Mitchell, who records under the name Jefferson Hyll. Mitchell says he’s moving closer to alternative rock with this release, as opposed to the Americana he’s performed in the past.
Mitchell is a songwriter of some repute, having won the open category of the UK Songwriting Contest in 2021, along with seven more of his songs that made the Finals. He also won a special mention in the International Songwriting Contest. Mitchell says he’s largely influenced by ‘80s Springsteen and Dylan, The Wallflowers, Tom Petty, The War on Drugs and The Waterboys among others. Interestingly he doesn’t mention Richard Thompson or Mark Knopfler, whom his singing voice reminds me of. But I also detect a structural similarity to the rock songs of folkie Dar Williams, despite the gender difference.
In fact, the opening track “Radio Nights” feels like a direct descendant of Williams’ End Of The Summer in tempo, arrangement, and concept. It’s a fuzzy, jangly tune with the focus squarely on Mitchell’s masculine, reassuring vocals. He also appears to be playing everything, including keyboards. His songwriting chops are obvious and the hooks seem to write themselves.
“If I Sleep” continues in the same vein, though starting out with tremolo electric guitars that suggest a morse code message. With help from Michael McGough on backing vocals, this song does owe something to the often majestic tracks of Bruce Springsteen, with especially haunting electric lead ornamentation. The chorus couplet “If I sleep / Will I dream… don’t wake me up if the dream comes true” is quite effective. The title track “Dark” is back to Mitchell on lead and background vocals, and this is one where the singing and reverb-laden guitars have a mellow Dire Straits feel. I especially like what I call the “second chorus” where a new section connects and expands on the main chorus, taking it another level higher. (Bonus comment: stepping away after playing this song, I couldn’t stop hearing it in my head!)
“The Seven Seas” is built on a fairly basic rock riff, while Mitchell’s vocals have a bit of Leon Russell’s bluesy swagger. Jason Kesler helps out on backing vocals, while the guest lead guitar solo is by Joel Davis, though it’s not a classic shredding solo per se; more of another texture, blending nicely with Mitchell’s Mellotron-like keys. “City Inside” is very much a radio-friendly tune that verges on dreampop thanks to the echo on the keys and guitars. The song builds power in subtle ways until the final minute, where Mitchell underlines the verses with blankets of electric guitar.
“Stars” has a title and piano riff that are quite evocative of Springsteen, but almost immediately the song becomes more like Jefferson Hyll. The guitar feels like an electric 12-string, or has that same kind of shimmer. The verses feature sweet fuzz melodies playing off Mitchell’s vocals (with Joshua Spence on backing), and his synth strings add a classy element. Guest Cade Roberts caps off the tune with a soaring guitar solo. One of my clear favorites.
“Crying for Love (For Chet Baker)” is a tribute to cool jazz pioneer Chet Baker, a game-changing trumpeter with a troubled career and mysterious death. It’s everything you’d hope such a song would be: respectful, evocative and even sweet. Arden Miller adds backing vocals on this track, as well on the following “Black Car from Avalon” which put me in mind of Lyle Lovett in a thoughtful frame of mind. “Heart’s A Riddle” has a little of both Tom Petty and Bob Dylan in the composition, again paired with that Bruce-like Wall of Sound. Joel Davis contributes a tasty fuzz solo both to the song and the concluding “Hold That Thought, Hold Me Tighter” which takes the opportunity as the closing track to quiet things down, putting most of the spotlight on Mitchell’s vocals until the big finale. Yet another great title and song idea, and Mitchell delivers on its promise.
As a songwriter and performer Mitchell is clearly in his own league, and this album would be a worthy addition to anyone’s catalogue!