Rewiring The Classics
Americana meets electronica on new releases from Blues Control and Daughn Gibson
Published: June 20, 2012
Think folk. Think country. Think music that brings to mind a verdant wood or meadow. Now think about the instruments that create those settings. Chances are a number of strings and things get ticked off before arriving at electronics, but the electric charge that powers ambient head trips and rock’s sinister undertow is exactly what Blues Control and Daughn Gibson use to create their pastoral, rural moods on their respective new albums, Valley Tangents (Drag City) and All Hell (White Denim).
Blues Control—the keys, guitar, and tapes combo of Lea Cho and Russ Waterhouse—sprouted up in the mid-aughts as a New York noise duo genre-splicing Tower Recordings-esque audible-hiss folk with ambient atmosphere, like a Fuck Buttons informed equally by Liege and Lief and Music for Airports. Now based in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Blues Control explores more ethereal regions on its new Valley Tangents, its fifth album proper and first for Chicago’s Drag City.
A Brubeckian piano filigree floats over a shuffling vamp on album opener “Love’s a Rondo” before a fuzzed-out guitar joins in and the track becomes a jaunty melody that’s being visited by a 1950s sci-fi-movie alien. The song is a casual introduction to the kind of tangents that Blues Control is going to wander around in here. Sometimes the rural countryside is where folks work the land, rat racers come to escape city life, brooks babble, and other cliches frolic en plein air. And sometimes it’s where the spaceships land.
The ensuing five tracks find their own space in which to place their feet in the grass and turn their heads to the stars. The lovely “Open Air” follows a reflective, practically New Age-y solo piano line into an ink-black night for nearly three minutes before faint electronic layers color in the loneliness around it; by the time the song reaches its end, it has slowly flowered into a comforting thrum. “Walking Robin” and “Iron Pigs” rely on more active electronic elements, but the vibe remains a nature chill. A squishy, muted electronic hiccup provides the hopping pace of “Robin,” which darts around like a bird on land while a harp-like trill of strings and various guitar effects chase the giddy beat around as if trying to put salt on its tail. “Iron Pigs” goes for a more buzzing and bouncing temperament and cuts a vaguely Spaceheads jib, the sort of groove where jazzbos dream of electric sheep. Album standout “Opium Den/Fade to Blue” is a slow burn of an echoing narcotic, like one of those deeply sedated Amon Düül cuts where the throng was coming down after a freak out.
People looking to tune in and turn on should be warned before putting on Daughn Gibson’s All Hell, because they just might drop clean off the map. Gibson is the nom de producer/band of Josh Martin, the Carlise, Pa.-based former drummer of the mad-blunted, butt-rocking metal trio Pearls and Brass. For Hell, his debut as Gibson, Martin shirks ’70s boss riffs in favor of what sounds like ’50s and ’60s gospel, honky-tonk, and country folk samples, which he loops with catchy cuts of down-tempo electronics. The whole album has that recorded-in-the-basement-underneath-a-crime-scene feel that the Cramps borrowed from Charlie Feathers, and Martin sounds entirely too at home down there. As Gibson, Martin takes good ol’ American country music into a darkness blacker than Nick Cave’s suits.
The album’s moody intensity would be a little too much if it weren’t for Martin’s ability to stitch together pop-infectious melodies and his deep, resonant voice. Hell might be as heavy as a wet parka, but damn it if you don’t want to hum along to it. Such tunes are the perfectly cut smoking jacket to Martin’s voice. It’s a combination of former Tinderstick Stuart Staples’ velvety croon and Tim Buckley/Vic Chesnutt deep and troubled seduction. It’s the voice of a man who knows everything that’s wrong with him is what makes him attractive. Gibson isn’t the chain-wallet rocker hitting on everything with a pulse. He’s the guy minding his own business at the end of the bar who’s going to come up to your girlfriend and wordlessly stare something irresistibly damaged into her eyes, and then the next thing you know you’ll be staring at them as they walk out the door for a few hours that you won’t be able to put out of your mind.
And with songs this solid, you might very well get over it. Martin leads Hell off with “Bad Guys,” one minute and 57 seconds of exhausted resignation, a tired ode played so late into the night that it’s early, and the rest of the album takes place somewhere long after night has fallen yet way before a new day has come. On “Lookin’ Back on ’99,” Martin hotwires the darkwave disco revenge of “Rolling in the Deep,” takes it to a chop shop at the edge of town, and drives off in an emotionally stripped-down, honky-tonk/house-music strut of being done wrong to: “Don’t wait for love, love with you/ When it’s just empty plans in the bedroom,” Martin sings, as if this song’s narrator is remembering a promise he made to himself. “Tiffany Lou” sounds like Roy Orbison fronting Arab Strap, while “A Young Girl’s World” marries Johnny Cash’s throaty grit to a Grinderman “No Pussy Blue” lament when Gibson’s voice confesses to being an old man in the titular locale.
In a just radio universe, the bittersweet “In the Beginning” would kick “Somebody That I Used to Know” off of playlists coast to coast. Over a simple drum loop backing a forlorn piano sample, Martin sings an apology to a woman, insisting “someone else made you cry.” The questions come one after the other—“What do you mean? What did I say?”—before admitting he was wrong and trying to remind her how great it was at their relationship’s beginning. You know this guy will say anything just to keep her from walking away, but the music is so endearingly bittersweet you can’t help rooting for him a little bit.
All Hell is a precisely curated mood orbit, 10 tracks about people whose biggest ambition in life is not to be too much of a let down. It’s also so self-contained, singular, and mannered that it might be difficult to pull off live as Martin tours this summer, since albums feel to take place so out of time. And if so, big deal. Come winter the nights are long, people seek each other’s warmth when the temperature drops, and guys like Daughn Gibson can always find somebody new to disappoint.
Blues Control plays Floristree June 21 with Moss of Aura. For more information visit thefloristree.tumblr.com. Daughn Gibson plays the Golden West Cafe June 23 with Roomrunner and Speedy Ortiz. For more information visit unbooking.tumblr.com.
> Email Bret McCabe