Mmmmm. Can you smell that? Nothing says “cutout” like “a Dan Hill album from 1989,” does it? It’s almost like Dan was thinking about this series when he took Columbia’s money 19 years ago. Or when he took pretty much any label’s money at any point, really; our man Hill has been making records for more than three decades — 11 studio albums, if I’m looking at a correct account — and I’m not sure any of them are in print outside his native Canada. In fact, I’m betting most of you are looking at Hill’s name and saying “Who?” while the remaining 10% are saying “Have we really stooped this low?”
I take offense at that second question, mostly because we’ve always been this low, but also because, for a guy who recorded a whole bunch of incredibly bland pop ballads, Dan Hill is really sort of fascinating.
For starters, Hill’s dad is Daniel G. Hill, the Canadian sociologist and civil rights activist who founded the Ontario Black History Society, has been awarded the Order of Ontario, has been made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and was the first full-time director of the ontario Human Rights Commission. Dan’s brother, author Lawrence Hill, has written a number of important books, among them his 2001 memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, as well as his collaboration with United States Army soldier Joshua Key, The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq.
Okay, so admittedly, the fascinating bits of Hill’s background really don’t have much to do with him, and compared with other members of his family, his career accomplishments are really sort of lame — but he’s still far from your garden-variety AC singer. By his own admission, he spent the early part of his life trying to ignore his mixed-race heritage; in the decade and change since releasing his last studio album, however, Hill has found himself focusing more on racial and socioeconomic divides (read his terrifying/gripping essay, “A Parent’s Nightmare,” for a glimpse of Hill’s journey.)
Almost none of this, of course, has ever carried over to Hill’s music, which has always been adult contemporary to a fault. With 1989’s Real Love, he was trying to build on the momentum established by 1987’s Dan Hill, which featured “Can’t We Try,” the duet with Vonda Shepherd that sent him back to the Top 40 for the first time in a decade. It didn’t work — the album failed to chart — but looking back, it’s hard to fault his methodology; all 10 tracks are perfectly, edgelessly AC, performed to dull perfection by a crew of grade-A ringers, including John Robinson, Neil Stubenhaus, Paulinho da Costa, and (of course) Michael Landau and Dann Huff. The words “love” and “heart” show up in almost half of the song titles.
And have I mentioned that Track Six, “Wishful Thinking” (download), is a duet with Celine Dion?
Celine was still five or six years away from sparking the global phenomenon she unfortunately became in the ’90s; this is actually the earliest Dion performance I’ve ever heard. Admittedly, I’ve spent as little time as possible listening to Celine Dion, but even I was a little curious when I saw her name on the album credits. Whether this was a case of Columbia prepping its big Celine push, or Hill being ahead of his time, is thankfully beyond the scope of my knowledge — but I can tell you that Hill wound up earning a songwriting and production credit on her 1996 album, Falling Into You, which probably helped buy a few years’ worth of groceries.
I’m getting off track here. The point is that this is a sad little album, but it still should have been a hit. As it turned out, only the quasi-icky “Unborn Heart” (download) made much of a dent anywhere, reaching #3 on the AC chart — but for what it’s worth, I like all of these songs more than “Can’t We Try” or “Sometimes When We Touch.” On “Can’t Break the Same Heart Twice” (download), he even rocks a little, sort of.
Unfortunately for Dan, audiences were unmoved. After Real Love bricked, he slipped off the last rung of the major-label ladder, resurfacing two years later with Dance of Love on the ironically named Quality Records (Hill’s most famous labelmate: Autograph’s Steve Plunkett). Since then, he’s released two best-ofs and one collection of new material.
Seems like kind of a down note to end on, but don’t feel bad for Dan Hill — he still seems to keep as busy as he needs to, and you can buy some of his back catalog at his official website for the low, low price of $23 a disc. Who can resist?