House Of Freaks

Strongest album: Tantilla
Weakest album: All My Friends EP

Bryan Harvey (guitars, singing) and Johnny Hott (drums) are the only members of the House of Freaks, who hail from Richmond, Virginia. A two-man band approach may sound like that of a novelty band, but believe me the Freaks kick up enough racket for any "full-sized" band you can mention. In fact the guitar-drums setup is less of a big deal than you'd think, since the focus is always squarely on the songs and Harvey's impassioned vocals. The House of Freaks have slowly added extra instrumentation over time without much fuss, carrying them away from their original minimalism. An excellent, underrated duo, the House of Freaks broke up in the mid-90s after nearly a decade of making brilliant album after album that the world unjustly ignored. Whatever, their unique approach and frequently brilliant songwriting has produced some of the most intelligent and timeless post-punk/post-Dylan all-American roots rock of the late '80s and early '90s.

After a long search, I have found precisely one webpage for the House of Freaks.

House of Freaks (1987) ****

A stunning debut, this presents a literate band equally steeped in Old South murder ballads and the nuclear age. This is really the only time they stick to the two-man band sound, and while some of it sounds rudimentary compared to their later, more polished material, all the passion and power is there from the beginning. Harvey's gravelly, gospelly shouts give the material an extra urgency, as does Hott's furious, bone-dry drumming, which eschews any superflous flourishes to get the job done. The opener, "Crack In The Sidewalk", is a showcase for the duo's dynamics, as Hott underlays a tribal backbeat and Harvey plucks minimalist chords on his guitar, creating a tension that breaks into a chorus that hits you with almost physical force. "40", a Lennon-ish folk ballad, and "Dark and Light In New Mexico" fret over the curse of possible nuclear holocaust, a subject the Freaks didn't return to after this album. What would turn out to become the Freaks signature concerns are all over the place: death ("Lonesome Graveyard"), religion ("Give Me A Sign"), backwoods mythology ("Black Cat Bone"), and the New South ("My Backyard"). An excellent folk-rock album (with the emphasis on Rock) that had the misfortune of coming out in the synth-drenched '80s and subsequently got lost in the shuffle. I did see the video for "40" on MTV a couple of times, though, which turned me on to this band. Ripe for rediscovery by the No Depression neo-country roots movement.

Tantilla (1989) *****

The Freaks integrate some additional instruments into their two-man band, in the process creating their masterpiece. This is one of the forgotten classics of modern rock, and one of the few concept albums that actually holds together (if that phrase isn't too pretentious for a band as intelligently earthy as the House of Freaks). An album-length rumination on the South, with its troubled heritage of racism and religious intolerance, this is the album the overrated Band was supposed to have made if all the claims about them were half-true. Harvey simmers with repressed rage in the verses, lashing out into exultant choruses that give the lie to everything he's been taught in Sunday school and by bigoted old men. "The Righteous Will Fall" and "I Want Answers" castigate the hypocrisy of Southern Protestantism; in the former, everybody secretly wants the holier-than-thou puritans to stumble and fall, and in the latter Harvey spits with resentment, "Life's so short and it's so odd/To make believe in a malevolent God/Who doesn't understand/He's got no great plan". "White Folks' Blood" wonders how people live on the other side of the railroad tracks, to this day a shameful division of race in small Southern towns. "Big Houses" nostalgiazes for the Civil War, while "Family Tree" celebrates the special bond of ancestry. The pretty, fragile "Broken Bones", a lover's plea, and the closer, "World of Tomorrow", about mortality, are also highlights. A very powerful album, perhaps more powerful to me because, as a Southerner, I can identify with it closely - I understand very well the rage against bigots of the religious and racial kind, and also the conflicted love for my home and family. However, like all great statements of this kind, it roots itself into the specific to become that much more universal. And lord knows that the rest of the world shares the same problems the South does, though perhaps not as obviously in some places.

All My Friends EP (1989) **1/2

A stopgap EP that sounds rushed, most of these numbers feel like outtakes even if they aren't. Introducing horns and dabbling in a lounge number, the Freaks come across as a bit dilettantish. None of these six songs are as good as anything on the first two albums, though they're fairly entertaining in their own right. The best part about this record is the photo collage of Harvey and Hott's friends and family.

Cakewalk (1991) ****

Switching labels, the House of Freaks really polish up their sound (almost to the point of slickness) and indulge in a lot of experimentation. Removing the rough edges isn't really an improvement, but it allows a poppier side to emerge ("Honor Among Lovers", "Never"), which sounds not unlike the Smithereens. The big plus is that the band explores a wide range of stylistic avenues, a bit similar to R.E.M.'s concurrent Out Of Time. "Magpie Wing" is low-fi blues with a weird attempt at an old bluesman's cracking voice; "Hymn" is gospel; and the title track travels from Arabia. A switch from the political to the personal and a drop or two in overall intensity makes this less necessary than Tantilla, though the amount of variety here makes up for those shortcomings. The relaxed, crunchy swing of "Rocking Chair", the urgency of "I Do", and the closing ballad, "Remember Me Well", are all highlights of this refreshing, mature album.

Invisible Jewel (1994) ***1/2

Back on an independent label after their major-label bomb, the Freaks sound tired and bitter from lack of success, as the frustrated album title makes clear. Generally returning to the stripped-down dynamics of the first album, the Freaks deliver their hardest-rocking and least melodic music. The lack of melodies (the shimmering "Motorbike" excepted) and muddy sound makes this a step down in quality from previous releases, but the grittiness perfectly suits the defeat and despair that pervade this effort. At times sounding bluesier than ever before, and at other times displaying a Lennon '66 (or '70) influence, this makes for a rough listen, but often a compelling one. It's certainly their least accessible album, and newcomers should start elsewhere. Yet despite the deliberate ugliness, Hott and Harvey keep one listening by their typical fierce emotionalism and bootstrapping intensity. "It's A Fucked Up World" sets the tone, but Harvey's romanticism shines through on "She Wore Red" when he dances with his wife in the laundromat. No longer aiming for changing the world and having given up on many of their wildest dreams, the duo center their songs around the mundane details of hometown life, where there's "Awholelotofnothinggoingon", just a lot of "Stupid Things". "I'll Treat You Right Someday", Harvey swears, but he's still the "Whipping Boy" whose chance at more has more than likely passed him by, as he so painfully knows. It was no surprise that the band broke up after this release.

Gutterball (1993) ***

The band Gutterball is a who's who of post-punk American roots rockers. Joining Harvey and Hott are guitarist Steve Wynn (ex-Dream Syndicate), guitarist Steven McCarthy (ex-Long Ryders), and bassist Bob Rupe (ex-Silos). The result doesn't add up to the sum of its mostly excellent parts. Perhaps this is due to the fact that this record was written (mainly collaborations between Harvey and Wynn) and recorded in one weekend at a Richmond farmhouse. The triple-guitar Crazy Horse worship sonically satisfies, though it's rarely as exciting as it's supposed to be. Sometimes looseness doesn't make the transition to record. With Wynn dominating, ocassionally the lyrics are too pretentiously pulpy and noir (the title "The Preacher and The Prostitute" says enough), though the excesses that marred the Dream Syndicate are mainly reined in. Highlights include McCarthy's Mott the Hoople-ish "Motorcycle Boy", Wynn's Kurt Veill-ish "One By One", and the lovely pop gem "When You Make Up Your Mind".

Gutterball released another album in 1995 which I've seen but haven't picked up yet, though I plan to soon. Neither Harvey nor Hott have been heard from in quite some time; Harvey may or may not be releasing a solo album, and I'm not sure what Hott is up to. America has yet again fatally neglected one of its homegrown treasures.

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Reader Comments

Edward T Eaton,

Last night I went to a show at the cabaret metro here in Chicago and got to thinking about the House of Freaks. I was watching seven guys blast out a ton of sound and got to thinking about how those guys did it with just two. I had stumbled across the Freaks entirely by accident when I was in school at the U of I in Champaign when they were opening for Midnight Oil, and was totally blown away - to the point where the headliner just paled. I ran out to buy the album the next day. From then on I told everyone who would listen about my discovery, and routinely scanned the bins at the record store to see if they had released anything new.

I heard the news of their demise on WCBR out of Arlington Heights here in Illinois (I don't know how much word spreads about certain radio stations, but around here CBR is legendary. It was an experiment in what 'alternative' radio should be, touting quality bands for years before they break through elsewhere. Examples that come to the top of my mind are bands like Bare Naked Ladies (who really broke through last year, who CBR played for half a decade) Loreena McKinnet, who got on the charts last year but had been in decent rotation in 1992, and Nils Lara - the Bear touted him for a year and a half before I heard him anyplace else. Unfortunately, WCBR passed away this spring, bought out by a larger conglomerate who needed the frequency). WCBR was a station that devoted time to the House of Freaks, making some of the same editorial comments I've seen on your web page and other places about the band - brilliant, undiscovered treasure, etc. The announcer sounded like he was announcing the death of a family member when he mentioned that we had just heard a track from a band that was composed of half of the House of Freaks, which had broken up and wouldn't be providing us with any more of their fabulous music anymore. Unfortunately, I didn't catch the name of the new band, which guy was in it, and didn't have the presence of mind to call the station in time to ask.

Anyway, I've been occasionally scanning the music pages and concert listings to find out who that new band was. Last night, watching the show, it hit me - duh - to do a web search and see what I could find. And that's how I found you. I appreciate your interest, and thank you for posting the independent label releases (which I didn't know even existed - I've only got the big three and the EP)... I'm going to have to hunt them down. There's a lot of us out here, who would be willing to support any incarnation of this band or fractions thereof, if we could just hear about them (and if they retained whatever it was that made them work so well).

Brian Cottrill,

i was reading some of your cd reviews and you nailed the House of Freaks on the head... they were a great group and i'm sad they're gone... i think "this is it" off their CAKEWALK cd deserves a mention as one of the very best rockers... too many people don't understand TANTILLA and overlook it... i do think that the GUTTERBALL cd should be given 4 stars... it's a great album like dylan made in the mid-sixties!

nice web page...keep up the reviews.

ps- the doors are the most overrated band of all time, not VU. VU was one of the best american 60's bands with dylan, the beach boys and CCR.

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