If you’ve not heard of Kevin Tihista before, then you might not be aware of the majesty of a record from the year 2001 by the name of Don’t Breathe a Word. Recorded by Tihista (rhymes with “fiesta”) under the name of Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror, it was a record of sumptuous soft pop, influenced by the work of The Beatles (in particular the solo work of George Harrison), Bread and America to name but three, and critically lauded by the end of that particular year. However, timing is everything and due to the events in New York in September of 2001, many records that were released at around that time were forgotten about – including Tihista’s. Since then, there have been two largely ignored albums also under the moniker Red Terror, plus a collection of demos – but nothing much else. For a man with myriad personal problems including crippling bouts of stage fright, this radio silence of nearly seven years may not come as much of a surprise. So it was something of a pleasant shock to discover a new album in 2012 in the form of On This Dark Street.
Back with old producer Ellis Clark, Tihista’s new album returns to the themes of heartbreak and love gone awry that he covered on Don’t Breathe a Word with his black-as-night humour and incredibly dry wit still present and correct. To be honest, a record of self-pity and whingeing about a breakup without his wry take would have been unlistenable. Thankfully, though, Tihista’s witty song-writing and gently warming voice make this quite a lovely listen, rather than a depressing experience.
Straight from the off, on opener ‘Taking It To the Streets’, you can see that Tihista is dealing with hardships in the drollest manner he can possibly muster: “Now there’s a million reasons why she is leaving/Number one she hates the fact that I’m breathing/Not to mention all the drugging and drinking/Well, to me that’s just a typical evening”. The song itself is typical Tihista with its pristine production and lots of melody, but compared to the songs on Don’t Breathe a Word it’s stripped back, and across the record as a whole there’s less electric guitar and barely any soloing – a particular highlight of Tihista’s early work. It does seem like Tihista’s exercising some (conceptual) restraint: heck, even the running time and number of tracks (10) point to a return to the classic album format.
Elsewhere we find our hero deliberately sabotaging his relationship by using a beloved book as a handkerchief on ‘Jack K’: “I’m sorry but I ripped the cover off of your Jack Kerouac novel/But I had to blow my nose”, and on the gorgeous acoustic strum and organ swell of ‘N. Carolina’ he makes a dark threat to his former lover and her new beau, singing “You’re gonna have to just understand/If you’re gonna be with your new old man/Well I’m not one to brag or to boast/But I’ll have to just kill you both”. This track does signal a dark turn in proceedings with the morose ‘In Dreams’, and the sad ‘Teenage Werewolf’ that rises and falls around a lovely violin line, before we reach rock bottom with the unsettling and upsetting tale of domestic violence and self-defence manslaughter on ‘Don’t Let Him In’.
Thankfully, Tihista pulls himself back from the brink with the closing tracks ‘I Heard a Voice’ and ‘Country Road’. The former shines thanks to beautifully-plucked guitar lines and his gallows humour (“This is me begging for another chance… to beg”) and the latter ends the record on a note of positivity, with a jaunty pop track that sounds like a lost cut from Wilco’s Summerteeth.
While it’s never likely to be a breakout record or even receive the garlands that greeted his debut album, just the fact that Kevin Tihista is making music again with On This Dark Street is something to be thankful for, and for the most of the album his knack for writing fine melodies seems to have remained intact. It’s not earth-shattering, but these are simple pop songs constructed and played in a way that’s resulted in a very fine album.