The saxophone is an oft-maligned instrument in indie rock that recently received some out-of-nowhere street cred by being the thing that Colin Stetson chose to blow minds with and the centerpiece of the masterful “Midnight City” by M83. But “Midnight City” only re-appropriates a past meaning of the saxophone: it’s hard to imagine that Anthony Gonzalez honestly believes in the smaltzy sound of the saxophone as much as he believes in turning that goofy sound into something revelatory through contrast with its surroundings. (Maybe he’s earnestly all up in it, I don’t know.) But using the saxophone for effect is vastly different than conceiving it as a whole part of your sound, which is what makes Dear Blanca‘s repeated use of the saxophone the most surprising and intriguing part of a very surprising and intriguing album.
First off, the genre of Talker can be described as Conor Oberst-esque alt-country hysterics, making this album an unusual place to deploy saxophones. Secondly, the level of saxophone integration into “Griping,” “No Protector,” and “King of Salters” strongly implies that the instrument was not a late addition, but an actual consideration in the songwriting process. It’s not just surprising that saxophone appears; it’s even more surprising that it’s awesome.
“Griping” is the best example of Dear Blanca’s work on the album. The tune opens up with a 20-second alt-country solo guitar riff before dropping into a groove with tight drums, distant saloon piano, and steady bass. It’s effectively a pensive Old ’97s song until 0:33, when saxophones come swooping in with a completely unexpected layer of atmosphere. They transform the song into something different: perched on the edges of what I know and expect, but putting a foot outside it as well. Dylan Dickerson’s passionate, ragged voice comes in and spins the mood in another direction again, creating an altogether unique listening experience for me. The breakdown in the middle of the song feels like a car speeding up inexorably towards a cliff, with the choppy drumming and staccato blasts of saxophones pressing Dickerson’s anguished wailing ever forward. Then the band stops abruptly and leans back to the pensive mood (except for the vocals). It’s one of the most engaging songs I’ve heard all year.
The rest of the album keeps up the unexpected directions. “Comrade” brings in a cello to contrast against Dickerson’s roaring voice, which works beautifully. “No Protector” might be the best pop song of the bunch, relying on great bass contributions, a strong saxophone bit, and a compelling vocal melody from Dickerson. It might also be “Havana Tonight,” which has a more folky arrangement (harmonica!) but amps up the vocal melody to “I’m singing along? When I did start singing along?” levels. “Hunny (Don’t Mind If I Tao)” closes out the album with a wiry, buzzy post-punk tune, which is a little out of character but enjoyable after a whole album of emotionally and sonically involving alt-country.
Dear Blanca’s Talker features clever arrangements of intriguing sounds and memorable melodies. If you’re a fan of bands that lay it all out on the line in vocal and instrumental performance, you should be all up in this. If you’re into restraint, well, you may look elsewhere. Oh, and if you love saxophone, this is your jam. I expect to be listening to Talker for a long time, and I look forward to what Dear Blanca will put out in the future.