Chicago – Dillon Hodges – aka firekid - is bringing a modern twist to bluegrass, country, and Americana, mixing in pop and indie rock with hints of hip-hop and electronica, and even chiptune with help from an old Nintendo Game Boy. His self-titled debut album firekid experiments with a genres that haven’t seen much change, while still keeping much of his music rooted in tradition, singing about love, loss, and faith.
Upon first listen, I honestly wasn’t too impressed, but I quickly put myself in check. I’m a Yank, born and raised north of the Bible Belt, in the urban melting pot that is Chicago, unlike Hodges, who is a Southerner through and through. I realized I had to put myself in his shoes. I had to think like someone who grew up listening to country, bluegrass, and Americana, not rap, hip-hop, and R&B. For a moment, I took myself out of a city girl mindset, envisioning my travels down to the lower half of Illinois (which to Chicagoans is the South), Kentucky, and Tennessee, where grits are a plenty, cowboy boots and hats are in fashion, Jesus is king, and country takes over the airwaves. With that, I was able to see how visionary this album is.
Hodges grew up listening to bluegrass in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It was not until his college years that he discovered pop and electronica. That discovery, a move to Nashville, and a stint in L.A. meshed old and new, like jazz performers and hip-hop legends before him, creating something the kids will undoubtably enjoy, while simultaneously leaving plenty of old-timers shaking their heads in disapproval. The 2007 National Flatpicking Guitar Champion has taken his traditional teachings to the modern age with help from some DJ equipment and producer Sam Hollander.
The album starts out with with the nostalgia driven “Magic Mountain,” with heavy beats suitable for a dance track and Hodges’ Southern drawl and excellent guitar playing. “Lay By Me” is destined to become a radio hit, with its “feel good” melodies and clever lyrics: “Take my heart and put it in your pocket / Wear it like a locket and hide the key.”
“Gospel” brings more of an R&B feel and accentuates Hodges’ beautiful voice. His flatpicking can be heard here, too, melding different genres. His voice is also put wonderfully on display in the boot-stomping, hand-clapping ditty “Movin On.” One of the most beautiful and heart-felt songs on fierkid is “Boomerang.” Hodges sings of his faith in seeing a loved one again in heaven. His love unfolds, building up with percussion. Sweet harmonies fade out, reminiscent of a church choir at a funeral mass. “Statues” carries more of that modern feel, fully embracing pop, showcasing Hodges’ song-writing skills: “Tears in the mud / Dried by the sun / That’s how you turned to stone.”
Of course I must make mention of the single “Die For Alabama,” that’s surely been getting Alabama natives all hot and bothered with state pride. This just might be this generation’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Move over Lynyrd Skynyrd! “Americana Dream” is stripped down, and not overdone. Less is more and firekid shines when following this rule. While Hodges has said this song was written as joke and he is the pot calling the kettle black, this track is a winner. The album ends with the bonus track “These Are The Days.” It is definitely the poppiest of the bunch. It is also a pleasant surprise for listeners.
Whether you’re from the South, grew up an East Coaster, ride the waves on West Coast, or find your heart lies in the Great Plains, chances are you’ll find something to love in the genre-bending firekid, if you just give it a chance. To quote Liz Rowley’s recent live review, firekid delivers ”a perfect patchwork of genres” that is “modern, fresh, and not to be missed.”
Firekid is available for purchase on iTunes. Hodges will be touring, as firekid, this Fall, with Passion Pit, The Bright Light Social Hour, and Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear. A full list of tour dates can be found on the fire kid Facebook page.
After attending The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Sarah went on to study education at Dominican University, earning a degree in history. When not teaching, writing, or taking in a show, she is most likely to be found with a camera to her eye or hanging out in a darkroom.
You can follow Sarah Hess on twitter at @Sarahhasanh and view her music photography on her website: smhimaging.com.