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We know that lefties don’t like Dubya. But aside from, y’know, Texas, do they really hate the South? According to the National Review, they do. Back in May, the right-wing opinion journal released its list of the top 50 conservative rock songs, declaring No. 4, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” a “tribute to the region of America that liberals love to loathe.”
Plenty of below-the-Mason-Dixon-line radicals would no doubt disagree. And Nathan Shineywater and Rachael Hughes, core members of retro-rock group Brightblack Morning Light and natives of rural Alabama, might very well be among them. But it’s easy to imagine that the pair are just the sort of left-wingers the Review had in mind: They spend much of the year living outdoors in tents, trying, as the former says, to be “like the Native Americans,” and they recently relocated from their sweet home state to a community just north of San Francisco to do so.
Brightblack is one of those bands that devotes a big chunk of its Web site to environmental stewardship and uses recycled materials for packaging its albums, the latest of which, Brightblack Morning Light, includes a pair of reality-altering glasses. That might suggest the usual flowers-in-your-hair stuff—either meandering electrified jams or delicate acoustic ditties—yet the music on the band’s sophomore full-length is hardly brimming with stereotypical gestures. As far as hippie subgenres go, the new album belongs in neither the Acid Rock nor the Acid Folk bin—nor behind any other divider card that references LSD. Indeed, if Brightblack emanates a vibe of unstudied rootsiness and communalistic good times—which it most certainly does—it’s not because Shineywater and Hughes now reside somewhere in the vicinity of Haight-Ashbury. It’s because they were born in the region of America that liberals love to loathe.
Look no further than Shineywater’s guitar work, which drawls like Duane Allman after a boozy night on tour. Every once in a while, Shineywater lets loose a flourish that could almost pass for a solo. But mostly he just riffs in unison with Hughes, who dominates the new album with an electric-piano sound that all but raises itself to the heavens and cries, “Praise ye the Lord!” The two of them get a helping hand from, among others, a drummer who disguises funk as easy-listening, horn players who come across like Muscle Shoals journeymen, and a couple of backing vocalists who croon as if exiled on Main Street. Even the unrestrained layering of reverb and other effects smacks of Birmingham humidity, not of anything psychedelic or, God forbid, progressive.
Granted, the album’s magick-heavy lyrical content will probably raise a few eyebrows back home. No matter how wholesome a “long ride by a wooden canoe” might seem in and of itself, on “Black Feather Wishes Rise,” it comes across as darkly ritualistic. There are references to crystals and midnight, and the languid timekeeping is done as much by finger cymbals or tiny bells or whatever other incense-evoking instrument percussionist Elias Reitz is playing as by traditional rock drums. The tintinnabulation gets even spookier on “We Share Our Blanket With the Owl,” an instrumental full of looped, backward-masked whirrings, and “Come Another Rain Down,” a chime-laden track describing a drought-ending downpour that also happens to “bring a rainbow.”
That such observations are delivered in a near-whisper only adds nuance to what, at first blush, might seem a rather monolithic listen. It’s not. The great accomplishment of this 52-minute-long disc is how well the spaces between those chimes are filled: Here, it’s with a muscular bass line or delicate harmonizing; there, with some unexpected flute or brass. There are individual chops on display, for sure, but never more prominently than what Brightblack as a whole is up to.
The National Review asked readers to check their assumptions about rock’s inherent liberalness. Brightblack Morning Light asks listeners to throw out their ideas about Southern rock’s inherent rowdiness—but not necessarily those about its inherent conservatism. After all, for those who would hate on the gray owl of “All We Have Broken Shines” or the sparrow of “Star Blanket River Child,” there’s always the tough-on-crime sentiment of “Everybody Daylight,” a song that asks us to believe in something “better than a thief.” And on “Friend of Time,” Shineywater even prejudices productivity over introspection: “To think about time is wasted time/It has taken all of me.” If he and Hughes are the kind of conscience-bothered mister and missus that Skynyrd don’t need around anyhow, you’d never guess it from such a confident, red-state-rooted release.
Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny could never be mistaken for a forest-creature-cuddling, chant-down-Babylon type. In a recent interview, the Bay Area singer-songwriter said that Six Organs’ eighth and latest proper full-length, The Sun Awakens, is not “about rainbows and shit.” Yet Chasny, an accomplished fingerpicker who hates being categorized as a folk artist, is undeniably more liberal than his near-neighbors in Brightblack: The self-described nihilist says that his No. 1 influence is the PSF label, a profligate Japanese imprint best known stateside by a handful of free-jazz aficionados. Thus it’s no surprise that Chasny has expressed public dismay that the upcoming record by his other ongoing concern, gruff-psych outfit Comets on Fire, is unlikely to be what he imagined: “a huge slab of fuck noise.”
Nothing was stopping him from making said slab as Six Organs, his hippie-rock solo moniker. And in a sense, that’s just what he did. Perhaps in reaction to the emergent freak-folk scene, of which he says he wants no part, Chasny has almost wholly abandoned the sound of last year’s excellent School of the Flower, a très folky release that owed no small debt to Dixie. Sun is characterized more by its 23-minute closing track, “River of Transfiguration,” an extended drone that includes moments of metallic soloing and rather nonrhythmic drumming. As an example of so-called extreme music, “River” would hardly alienate your average blue-state bohemian. But as 50 percent of an album by a guy who frets over comparisons to Nick Drake and the Incredible String Band, it most certainly qualifies as a freakout.
Though not as freewheeling, several of the tracks on the first and more acoustic half of Sun culminate in similar moments of instrumental decadence. One ends with an echoey haze of crashing cymbals and Jerry Garcia–esque improv (“Bless Your Blood”). Another closes out with a demonstration of fleet-fingered heroics overdriven past the point of articulateness (“Black Wall”). And, in yet another moment of unsparing distortion, the album’s most aggressive tune, “Attar,” climaxes with wave after wave of what can best be described as fuck noise. Out of Sun’s seven tracks, only instrumental “Wolves’ Pup” harks back to the more rustic music found on Six Organs’ previous effort. Unfortunately, at less than two minutes’ length, that song is over before you can crack open a Pabst and hit the back porch.
It’s tough to figure out whether Chasny’s lyrics have taken a similarly wanton turn. I don’t want to say that he slurs. Much of the time he simply “ooh”s and “aah”s or intones a modal motif. But when he sings actual verses, he’s not the easiest guy to understand. And he certainly obfuscates more on Sun than he did on School. “Once your mind’s been sickened/Don’t scratch for your life,” from “Blood,” might be some good advice about reining in self-destructive tendencies—or, just as easily, it might not be.
Inasmuch as this kind of thing is an attempt to elude categorization, it’s forgivable. No serious artist is comfortable nestling into someone else’s pigeonhole. But at this point in rock history, there’s nothing admirable or interesting about going further out just for the sake of going further out—especially when the songwriting suffers as a result. Could The Sun Awakens have used a bit more traditionalism in its unbound sound? Put it this way: Is Skynyrd from the South? CP
Brightblack Morning Light performs at 9:30 p.m. Monday, June 26, at DC9, 1940 9th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 483-5000. Six Organs of Admittance performs at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, July 9, at Iota Club & Cafe, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (703) 522-8340.