LIGHTNING STRIKES – A Southern Gothic Rebirth: Thelonesomekid “The Last Days of Sugar,” Roselit Bone “Blister Steel,” Slim Cessna’s Auto Club “Cipher”



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[feature photo: Trish Tritz]

THELONESOMEKID “The Last Days of Sugar” (self-released)

Produced by Drive-By Truckers pal Bobby Matt Patton on the eastern edge of Enid Lake in Water Valley, Mississippi, The Last Days of Sugar represents a quantum leap in several directions for Gretchen Seichrist, the artist/painter/musician behind the alias Thelonesomekid (TLK). Boasting a notably broader sound profile overall (while retaining Seichrist’s trademark palette of tics and idiosyncracies that enhance the intimacy of her work rather than mask it as is most often the case), this record pushes into deeper darker realms, at times flirting with the ghosts of Southern gothic like a quirk pop Flannery O’Connor. This being Ms Seichrist, however, there’s always at least a shred of playfulness hanging somewhere off these songs like sprites swinging on the coattails as the madhouse of life’s denizens go through their usual dance. There is also what for TLK is the customary lack of shyness in caroming among genres, pixie-dusting them while she’s there with some of her quietly captivating eccentric charm and conjuring in the process a spellbinding vein of uniquely American music, a gritty folk pop touched by a stripped-down magic realism.

“Marry Me on Sunday” imagines a politicized but careworn Patti Smith sucked into a maelstrom wherein “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is hijacked by a kind of countrified scatting capable of spitting out nails like “and everyone you know is a mouthpiece for droopy corporate speech.” The title track then jumps into its own fray with of all things a power-popped, slightly stumbling carnival energy that nonetheless tumbles confidently forward with as much verve as we’ve ever hear from her. Upping the tension by dialing down the tempo, “Dug Out” follows, a sad dystopian survivor’s piano ballad that not only shows the unforeseeable good grace to allow a guitar on mournful fine to step up and have its reverbed whiplash say, but serves as well as a brimming audition tape should Nick Cave be looking for support to round out his current tour, possessing as it does a wounded, luminously emotional vibrancy he couldn’t help but recognize (and my, the last two pleadingly bleak lines – “How come nobody’s talkin’ on the train?/How come nobody’s jumping the guy with a blade?” – couldn’t more resonate for this Portland-based writer given recent events).

 

Those are TLDoS‘s first three tracks and are alone enough to convince I should think but maybe you’re a stubborn skeptic and need more, which is fine, as sui generis talents like Seichrist’s are designed precisely to hobble doubters before they can get a full head of steam. “Parris Island” is a jazzy art pop amalgam that triggers memories of Akron 1978 – Tin Huey in the main – the trippy aching “Donkey” is a Carole King piano weepie resting on a poignant absurdism, “The Walking Pencil” brings a loose, swinging Stax groove complete with a horn section and a wigged gospel-y organ the delightful wooze of which suggests it was tuned by an impish sideman with water in his ears while closer “Wanbli,” due the prominence in its gentle mix of a picked 12-string, a sighing minor chord progression, and an electric lending the melody sympathy and tear, has a touch of “Wish You Were Here” seeping into it, a rather appropriate mood to end a record of this sort of widescreen warmth.

As earworms go these take unusual, somewhat skewed shapes that dovetail well with the blasé vividness of Seichrist’s singing style. Exactly on pitch while sounding vaguely out of tune, it’s the instrument that most haunts in Thelonesomekid’s arsenal. Slightly unsteadying in its quaver, her voice takes something of a canny primitivist’s approach, its often – by appearance, anyway – shaky vulnerability masking a steely honesty of purpose. The Last Days of Sugar is one of those un-set-downable records that keeps you just enough off-balance to keep you riveted. Seichrist, it would appear, is masterful at that. [The Last Day of Sugar is available digitally here] √√√¼

ROSELIT BONE “Blister Steel” (Friendship Fever)

If in a fever dream you sat listening to 16 HP tear through a set of songs written with the idea of the Gun Club mixed with Calexico, while reading Cormac McCarthy and deciding simultaneously to form a band, you’d wake up to the sound of Roselit Bone.

Throwing themselves with a fury at the template established by debut Blacken & Curl a few years ago, the Portland band expand, refine, and up some serious ante here on its successor. So-called Americana has a broad sweep, ranging from the citified drawl of Uncle Tupelo to the doomed acoustic narratives of your Townes Van Zandts and Tom Russells to traditionalist No Depressioners hoping to spawn a new Nashville under the neon beer sign lights of neo-country dives all across the great sprawl of our strip-malled paradise. On Blister Steel Roselit Bone don’t simply touch those bases, they stomp on them.

On the opening title track founder/singer Joshua McCaslin, sounding a David Eugene Edwards gone grimly secular, unloads a tale of dark implication and unnerving portent, the band with a spooked delicacy urging him along at every turn. The song may resolve with a jaunt of snare, a flourish of mariachi horn, and something of a devotional monks’ chorale, but an inference of doom hangs over nonetheless like a drifting fog. And while Roselit Bone do step both lively and lightly on Blister Steel – the trumpet-tattooed, lap-steel kissed “Tie Die Cowboy,” for instance (though even there the disturbed spoken-word intro shadows all that follows it), or the picking jubilee “Only Falling Sounds,” its sweet pitching mandolin waltz one could imagine escorting George Jones into his first high school dance, his eyes and heart full of wonder – they’re at their most hauntingly effective when a whiff of uncertainty, if not menace, attends.

 

On tracks such as “By the Glint of Your Horns,” its ominous simmer of tension finally giving way to the reaped whirlwind, McCaslin’s voice snapping like a whip, or the parched lament of “Leech Child” on which the lonely empty room reverb and laconic, pleading tempo help make it as lovely and excruciating as an angelic abandoned orphan child seen in a failing light, or last track “Like So Much Garbage” that comes on like a soulful country belter arranged for Elvis Presley by Van Dyke Parks, its blues and despair and recrimination made palatable by a triumph of parping horns, a celestial chorus and McCaslin’s syncopated vocal efforts, anxieties and possible fatal consequences chafe about the edges and all roads lead to mortality no matter which way the song goes or what detours it takes. Leading the pack in this regard, however, is the unrelenting “My First Name.”

Full of fuck-off demons and spitting gumption with a drunken brujo’s disdain, Roselit Bone’s take on Americana here is both savage and eerily bespoke, it’s close to the razor’s edge and someone’s gonna get cut. So fierce is it one strains not to imagine the ghost of Jeffrey Lee Pierce hovering on the sidelines officiating when he believes it’s necessary which isn’t often, judging in most instances to let the imbroglio unroll at its natural pace across an increasingly bloodied desert floor. Certainly he’d recognize and revel in the Kid Congo guitars crossing paths with switchblades drawn, would desperately identify with the general whoop of things, the feral mania that’s somehow both taut and loose, explosive and restrained. It is, in short, Roselit Bone down to the marrow and reason alone to own this album. That the rest of Blister Steel stands easily up to it without backing down doubles the impetus and suggests not grabbing this would actually be a bit foolish. √√√½

[Roselit Bone is a big band beyond McCaslin and their work here demands their names be carved in granite or better yet the bar top down at your local:

Victor Franco: guitar

Matt Mayhem: bass, trumpet

Barry A Walker Jr: pedal steel

Valerie Osterberg: flute, percussion

Andy Manla: keyboards, percussion, accordion

Daniel Gruszka: trumpet, sax

Ben Dahmes: drums

Blister Steel available here]

SLIM CESSNA’S AUTO CLUB “Cipher” double-vinyl reissue (SCAC UNINCORPORATED)

In a way I guess you could say I’m lucky. While I hewed with abandon to the other Mile High Southern gothic force-of-nature that formed from the molten debris of The Denver Gentlemen – David Eugene Edwards’ Sixteen Horsepower and Wovenhand – this other flaming branch, formed in 1992, eluded me. Knew of them, heard their name about, but was somehow never driven to explore. Not sure why. Was it the name, did it sound too clever by half? Nah, not to me. Sounds just clever enough, actually. Was it the act of some spiteful god keeping this source of excitement and delight from me in hopes of seeing me suffer with regret years later? Well, no (appropriate as that may be), it was simply an act of mundane misfortune which – and here’s the lucky part – has the ironic knockoff effect of allowing me to enjoy a burst of near-incomparable delayed gratification. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, if Cipher, originally released in 2008, is any representative indication and all evidence confirms it is, are a breathless, hurtling dynamo of rich-veined American music so good it’s almost beyond reckoning. This record proves that discovering a new favorite band a quarter century or so past its initial formation is no less thrilling than being there at its genesis. There is no such thing as ‘too late’ in these circumstances and should any speak forth with argument I will hereafter offer this album as a succinct and elegant, kickass rebuttal.

Similarly steeped if not as firebrandingly devotional as the work of his former Gentlemen cohort, Cessna’s outfit, in terms of production and particularly their exuberant use of harmony, tends to privilege a bigger tent (if you will) full band sound. Just as punched up and certainly as deserving of equal acclaim – even if does have to arrive retroactively from some of us – it could persuasively be said in simplified shorthand that SCAC is the more New Testament counterpart to 16HP’s Old Testament brimstone approach. Possibly too-pat comparisons aside, all that really counts is the power of the music, it’s ability to move us in either or both of that curt phrase’s applicable definitions, and there’s enough harnessable power in this lot to move mountains.

Eleven tracks clinging to four short, psalmic placeholders that act as critical structural staves – quite brilliant in their makeup and thematic weight but I’ll leave it to you to discover why – Cipher rather seethes with joy (even if at times it’s of a dark and mortally troubled type), a deeply robust thrum of belief rumbling from inside the chests of these songs. “This Land is Our Land Redux” is a positively popping, propulsively ripping way to open the album proper, boiling over with a buoyant rage at the mess being made of the wondrous spoils Guthrie riffed on some seventy plus years ago. Woody, one imagines, spins in his grave with boundless glee. It’s exactly that surging energy, whether outright present or, as is frequently the case here, barely suppressed before the cistern blows and the all-hells break loose, that defines and feeds this band. They truly cannot seem to help themselves. In service to their zealous muse SCAC have allowed themselves an addiction to the furious release.

 

After the thunderball speed trap barrel bomb or “Americadio,” just past placeholder #2, “Children of the Lord” commences, and though it begins scrawny with the dry staccato’d pick of a single banjo string, it takes less than a minute to snap loose the restraints and burgeon with fervor into a pure-out hot griddle breakneck, emerging unabashed as a punky gospel hoedown. Hell, even “SCAC 101,” a first-person-in-third-person ballad that tries so hard to wear its heartfelt irony on its moonshine-soaked sleeve and keep it at at that, Cessna’s supple baritone drafted in to its most affecting purpose, can’t resist the breakout jones before slyly dialing back to end on an echo of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”

Not that it’s all naught but revival tent rama-lama ’round here, no sir. One thing this Auto Club ain’t is a one-trick pony. Also wedged in the playlist are moments of dark menace – “Jesus is in My Body – My Body Has Let Me Down” that sounds the Swans exploring the lurid shadows of a breaking down Revelation – straight-ahead yee-haw diversion – the banjo-anchored knees-up “Ladies in the Know” that may have a throwaway feel to it but is nonetheless a model of unbridled country-cookin’ efficiency (plus scores points for the use of the word ‘jackanapes’) – and a slide-attended honky-tonk flavored plea to Jesus to just come hang out if he needs a break (“Everyone is Guilty #2), making this record the kind of full service joyride that takes you to every corner of this crazy mortal carnival.

An album cracking wise while being bountifully profound, Cipher, even with its coded fonts that send one to Discogs for the songs’ deciphered titles, could not hit with a more direct aim. If, like me, you missed it the first time around, don’t be doubly unlucky. Get it here. √√√¾