[Self-released; Oct. 2]
[Self-released; July 21]
It’s getting so that country radio is the last place you’d look for country music. The format teems with songs distinguished from pop by little more than a Southern accent, and perhaps a pedal steel nestled somewhere in the trendy electronic production and bouncy R&B cadences. Across the spectrum from this newfangled razzle-dazzle lies a stanch, gloomy traditionalism that abhors anything after Hank Jr., if not Hank, perhaps with a concession to soulful Chris Stapleton.
But two recent local records, both of which happen to be self-titled and have physical releases coming out on November 13, adroitly walk the line between pop and purist, recalling the alt-country heyday of Uncle Tupelo and No Depression magazine. Clark Blomquist and Charles Latham both home in on a certain timeless simplicity, letting old tropes and truisms breathe clear contemporary air.
Blomquist has been a Carrboro-area mainstay since the Great Florida Invasion that shaped local indie rock in the aughts (I’ll tell you that story sometime) swept him onto our landlocked shores. It’s usually futile to try to describe his projects briefly: Lately, he’s been purveying psychedelic electronic music as Tegucigalpan. Before that, there was the elastic weirdo-pop of Waumiss and Shallow Be Thy Name, and before that, there was the postmodern prewar Americana of The Kingsbury Manx. Even when Blomquist plays in rock and punk bands, he can’t sit still, flitting from former guitar duties in Spider Bags to Cold Cream’s drumkit.
He always surprises us, and given his esoteric track record, making fine, flowing country music is probably the last way he could.
He fancifies his name as C. Albert Blomquist to set off this long-steeped full-band album from his prolific bedroom-stoner excursions. Abetted by Mipso fiddler and vocalist Libby Rodenbough, guitarist Ezekiel Graves, and many more players of pedal steels, banjos, resonator guitars, and mandolins, Blomquist handles a rock band’s worth of gear himself, plus vocals, glockenspiel, and Mellotron. The result is a laidback but lissome heartbreak almanac where a rustic orchestra tints the classic themes every shade of blue and splashes bright modern accents here and there.
The record begins at an easy canter with “Claws in Me,” where confessional lyrics, rich acoustic strumming, and a softly sawing fiddle set the emotional register—a sort of melancholy ardor—and the musical atmosphere, dappled and faded like an old Polaroid. But there are also tipsy honky-tonk shuffles like “Love Just Can’t Be Hurried,” shades of luminous sixties psych-rock in “Slow Motion Roller Coaster,” and the country equivalent of dreampop in “Sore, Sorry Mess.”
Blomquist doesn’t neglect the genre’s signature morbid humor, either. In “Never Had a Heartache Hurt So Hard,” he relishes listing all the ways he might perish, from getting tetanus on a rusty nail to digging up a powerline, knowing he never got the object of his heartache back. But he’s choosing traditions judiciously, explicitly drawing the line at jingoism with “Kickin’ Down Doors,” which interrogates soldiers “putting guns in the faces of different races in far-off places.” It’s not a sentiment you’d find in much classic country this side of Steve Earle, and it’s one kind of innovation—moral—that mainstream country still doesn’t really allow.
In contrast to Blomquist’s sun-bleached sound, Charles Latham and the Borrowed Band add a sleeker, more nocturnal indie-rock patina to a similar countrypolitan core on their eponymous debut, which follows a number of the Durham-based singer-songwriter’s own quirky but sound country-rock releases.
Latham habitually animates pastiches of vintage Americana with deftly verbose lyrics, not unlike Django Haskins of The Old Ceremony, which positions him well to pull off the wordplay at the bedrock of country songwriting.
On vocals and rhythm guitar, Latham leads a well-drilled band featuring cool-headed singer Abby Sheriff and fluent lead guitarist Luis Rodriguez, among others, all glinting together like stars in a constellation. The album’s exuberantly imagined riffs include “Squares (I’m Trying to Get in Shape),” a pun-laden snapshot of ticky-tacky urban life, and “Left on Red,” which extracts an archly poignant double meaning from a common idiom in the high Nashville style.
Throughout the record, the meter varies from slow-burning ballads (“Half-Assed Love”) and acoustic blues (“Laundry Song”) to crispy rock and feisty boogies— touched in places by a space-rock squall or a warped Pixies guitar hook, but always with fetching melodies and elaborate lyrics, wrapped in humble, down-to-earth packages. The folksy ramble “How Do I Leave You” especially exemplifies Latham’s knack for stretching out a melody and exploring its nooks and corners, as pedal steel and acoustic guitar runs eloquently answer the lyrics.
Together, these two records suggest an alternate timeline where No Depression never folded and Luke Bryan never happened. As a fan of mainstream pop in twangy clothing, I can’t say I’d want to live there, but it sure is a dreamy, easygoing world to visit. Both artists step lightly over the false dichotomy of classic and contemporary to embody the best of both.
Both Blomquist and Latham’s albums have physical releases November 13; visit their respective websites for ordering details.
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