Born in California but based in Chicago since the early 1990s, Kevin Tihista has enjoyed a long career in and around the American independent rock scene without ever really occupying centre stage. Starting out as the bass player in the modestly successful Triple Fast Action, he first cut his song writing teeth in a short lived stint with Veruca Salt before going solo at the start of the new millennium, initially performing as Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror.
Four albums followed in the next five years, establishing Tihista’s blueprint of classic, Beatles-influenced song craft, with a fondness for theatrical arrangements often offset by bittersweet, sardonic lyrics. But following problems obtaining a record deal in the US, he dropped off the radar for seven long years before re-emerging in 2012 with the excellent On This Dark Street, which showed he had lost none of his gift for penning melodically rich, deceptively simple songs that wryly examine themes of heartbreak, loss and disappointment.
Modern Standard is a project dating back to the start of Tihista’s ‘lost period’, featuring what the artist himself acknowledges are some of his most upbeat songs. After the album failed to see the light of day as intended back in the mid-2000s, Tihista made the decision to plough a different furrow on his comeback with the starker, more pared back sound of On This Dark Street. However, someone has obviously had a word in his ear and encouraged him to also finally release Modern Standard, which is great news as the quality of these compositions is uniformly high.
The hooks start straight away with the slowly building piano chords of opener Infinity, which inhabits the same lush ’70s singer-songwriter territory as John Grant’s majestic Queen Of Denmark album. Right Here, Girl continues in a similar vein, a gentle acoustic strum with some soaring harmonies, topped off with Tihista unabashedly crooning “who is gonna love me/’cause it’s looking like the end of the world”.
Try The Veal is a great example of Tihista’s ability to blend comedy and tragedy. The tale of a drifter cast out of his rented accommodation by a jilted landlady lover, lines like “she says I owe her 100 bucks/for the last six times we’ve fucked” are sung over a flute refrain that’s simultaneously maudlin and slightly suggestive. Yet Tihista also proves on Modern Standard that he can do straightforward love songs too; the beatific Texas Girl, with its wistful atmosphere and lovely rolling piano solo, sounds like one of the best songs Harry Nilsson never wrote.
Occasionally, Tihista is guilty of being a little too twee and sugary; I Just Can’t Get High Anymore’s ham fisted fuzzy guitar breaks and terrace chant of a chorus grate a little, while The City sails too close to a pastiche of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream for comfort. The latter track subjects us to some uncharacteristically goofy lyrics from Tihista, with couplets like “when it comes to love I don’t wait/I just participate” not likely to go down in posterity as his finest hour.
Overall though, this is a consistently strong, highly listenable collection from an artist worthy of much greater recognition. Often compared with the late Elliott Smith because of his ability to marry bleak introspection with great tunes, in truth Tihista’s style has more in common with the aforementioned Grant; perhaps the best recent example of a sublime talent toiling in obscurity for years before finally breaking through. Modern Standard isn’t quite the game changer of a record that Tihista needs to emulate his fellow American’s success, but it’s certainly another promising sign that its creator’s best work is hopefully still to come.