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The third and most seasoned Drugdealer album, Hiding In Plain Sight, almost didn’t happen at all. Frustrated and insecure with his own singing voice prior to the pandemic, Drugdealer founder and primary songwriter Michael Collins was nearly ready to throw in the towel. With hits like “Suddenly” and “The Real World” (from the band’s 2016 debut, The End Of Comedy) and “Honey” (from their first album for Mexican Summer, 2019’s Raw Honey), Collins had plenty to be happy about. But due to a frequent impulse to hand over the microphone to friends and collaborators like Weyes Blood, Jackson MacIntosh, and his trusty musical companion Sasha Winn, Collins became increasingly unsure of himself as a singer. Then, amidst the windswept art colony of Marfa, Texas, a chance encounter with the visionary artist and composer Annette Peacock changed his outlook.
While attending Mexican Summer’s annual Marfa Myths festival, Collins ran into Peacock backstage. “I was so inspired by [Annette]. But similarly to all these other vocalists I’d worked with, I didn’t feel like I had it in me.” he recalls. “I told her my plight, then I played her a song, and she told me I wasn’t singing high enough for my speaking voice. When I returned to LA, I started coming up with new progressions, which I’d modulate up three half steps. It forced me to find a new way to sing.”
In the valley of the shadow of doubt, during a period when Collins was considering giving up on music and embarking on his lifelong dream of filmmaking, a furtive conversation with a legend allowed him to find his own distinctive voice. But, as the title implies, the lockdown era during which Collins wrote the bulk of the record was a time spent searching for answers – searching for love.
“Madison,” the opening track on Hiding In Plain Sight, is the first song Collins wrote singing in this suggested range. His newfound confidence as a yarn-spinning vocalist in the gruff tenor tradition of Nick Lowe, or even Van Morrison, is readily apparent, with Conor “Catfish” Gallaher’s pedal steel adding a dusting of cosmic country to Collins’ down-hard love song.
When Collins wrote the would-be AM Gold hit, he was summoning an imaginary vision of a love that had eluded him in reality. The song focuses on an unknown figure he could idealize. “All the art I’ve made is related to this searching archetype,” Collins says. “I feel there’s no one way that people find love in their life. When I started to make this album, I noticed that all the lyrics dealt with this subject. On ‘Madison,’ the chorus goes ‘Hoping you’ll find a love/You’re one design of love.’ Then the next song I wrote went ‘Find someone to love…’ At that point, I pretty much knew where it was going. Sasha (my main musical partner) and I are both incredibly romantic. We’ve worked on multiple projects that are all based around this search for love.”
But this quest spanned beyond the traditional conception of love. It takes a village to put together Drugdealer records. The Greek term for love of friends, philia, translating to “the highest form of love,” is evident in a deep cast of characters including Drugdealer band members Mikey Long, MacIntosh and Josh Da Costa (CMON), as well as Southland virtuosos like John Carroll Kirby (Frank Ocean, Stones Throw) and Daryl Johns (Mac DeMarco, The Lemon Twigs).
Tim Presley sings on the second song, “Baby,” and Collins had a clear role in mind for the California avant-rock mainstay. “I love White Fence so much, but I also wanted to hear Presley sing a song that sounded like an early ’60s sock hop band who had never tried drugs in their life.” Meanwhile, Kate Bollinger floats an effervescent lead vocal over the Rhodes-driven groove in “Pictures of You.” As usual, Collins wrangled a who’s who of background singers and instrumentalists to carry out Hiding In Plain Sight’s vision. Mainly, however, the record acts as a welcome showcase for Collins as an emboldened lead singer, a wayward bandleader who has found a way to love himself as a singer, songwriter and storyteller.
Taking inspiration from a canon of gruff but soulful rock vocalists like Phil Lynott, Collins looks back on his nocturnal meanderings through LA’s warrens of bars and clubs (“New Fascination”). He’s right up front in the mix, detailing a search for love in all the wrong places. All the while, his band turns on a dime, with Long and Sergio Tabanico trading respective electric sitar and electric sax solos. Ultimately, this anti-hero’s quest culminates with “Valentine,” a song Collins wrote after seeing his soon-to-be girlfriend’s band for the first time. “The band plays your songs/And you sing it out/No, I’ve been a fan of you/For a little while.” From this new vantage point, Collins can finally see his old self clearly. On “Hard Dreaming Man,” he looks back at a restless decade on the road through the rearview mirror. “Hard dreaming man/lemme tell you anything I know… I gotta go any place I can go,” he sings over a chorus of honky-tonk guitars you might hear wafting out of saloon doors. “The thing I actually do at a high level isn’t playing piano,” Collins says, “it’s telling stories. Our group of musicians, we all just really like to hang out and tell stories together.” Collins once again hands the mic over to his talented friends on the final, celebratory track, “Posse Cut.” The latest, greatest entry in a Los Angeles funk tradition spanning from Leon Sylvers to Warren G, the six-minute jam finds a groove and rides it, with Bambina, Winn, Sean Nicholas Savage, Video Age, and Kirby showing out. In what could be a summation of the record’s themes, Winn sings, “I don’t wanna stop the flow/But there’s something you should know/I’ve been known to move around/I get lost before I get found.” Ultimately, Hiding In Plain Sight is an odyssey from philautia—the ability to love oneself —to philia, a greater ability to love and embrace the contributions of those around you. Only then does a path clear for an encompassing and passionate romantic love, eros. Ultimately, Collins finds love all around and, finally, feels in possession of the voice to sing about it, resulting in the most joyful and fully-realized Drugdealer album to date. Hiding In Plain Sight is the sound of Michael Collins and Drugdealer getting their groove back.