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Salesman: Avant garde alt-country

October 2, 2014

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If first lines are important for setting the tone of an album, then the opening salvo from Salesman on Escalante lets you know that things aren’t going to progress in the normal fashion: “I believe the dead have to climb / up the narrow road that’s thinner than a chalk line / but they climb / like wine up my throat.” What unspools in the next 37 minutes is a hypnotic, haunting, eerie set of tunes that don’t adhere to any rules of genre or style. Escalante is its own thing, and that’s not something I get so say very often.

Opener “7×7” sets things in an ostensibly Americana/alt-country setting, with fractured but still recognizable alt-country guitar work and thrumming bass. It’s got those real wild lyics, but you can reasonably call it an alt-country song (albeit one that the Jayhawks never would have imagined). But by the second track, all genre markers are largely obliterated. “Horn” is the sort of song that seems fit for the desert: disjointed bass lines, spartan drumming, occasional dispatches of modified guitar noise, and distant sleigh bells accompany ghostly, mournful vocals for the first true taste of eerie. There is an impressive, grinding guitar bit (guitar solo?) halfway through, but it’s more like Tom Morello’s guitar solos than a surf-rock one.

Things get really wild on “Clear Cold Heaven,” which is a solo vocal piece accompanied only by unsettling clicking, buzzing, and whirring sounds. It is truly avant-garde, and more than a little creepy. (Bonus track “Bringing Upbringing” is constructed in a similar vein, but is less uncomfortable due to the mix of sounds around the vocals.) The members of Salesman know that they’ve been a bit rough on their listeners, so they close out Side A with the acoustically soothing “Spirit Jar,” a beautiful, pensive, slow, acoustic-led folk tune that’s about waking up in a spirit jar. (No rest for the eccentric.)

“Four Legs” counts as one of the more standard tracks here, a helter-skelter indie-rock track that invokes Pontiak and other swamp-lovin’ rock bands. It nears the levels of sonic aggression of Lord Buffalo, the noisy/apocalyptic alt-country band that shares members with Salesman. (“When You Face It” also cultivates this sort of deep-night, gritty-dusty groove.) “Loving Dead” also nears normalcy, opening with beautiful violin and guitar harmonics. So it’s totally possible for Salesman to make songs that adhere to genre patterns, but they just prefer to subvert them most of the time.

Escalante is a fearless, unrestrained record that makes a definite mark. It is not content to get in line with the other bands’ stuff. If you think there’s not enough alt in alt-country these days, Salesman might be on your avant-garde wavelength. Adventurous types, forge ahead!

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Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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