For whatever reason, there came a time when I couldn't think of rock n' roll-- the term, or the idea-- without wanting to puke. I'd become overwhelmed with flashbacks to my time in a Judas Priest cover band, playing to an aging, mulleted bar band boys club who would gladly sing along to "Hell Bent For Leather"-- but still, years later, hadn't accepted that Halford was gay. The dark side of rock and it's accompanying "isms" are enough to make one lose track of the exciting, universal role it plays in American experience. That first time your mom or dad passes along Pink Floyd's best LPs to you, time and geography melt away, generations lose their meaning, and everyone still feels their gut rumble if they can't make out all of the details yet. Luckily, Lea Cho and Russ Waterhouse of Blues Control haven't forgotten about this feeling, and it shows on Valley Tangents. By realizing that following the footsteps of your elders is deeper than looking or sounding like them, they've managed to make one of the best, classically "rock" albums in recent memory. It's all about going back to what it was all about in the first place: making a mess of the status quo.
Valley Tangents is not an aggressive takeover, nor is it a protest-- Lea and Russ' wield their talents with subtlety, favoring the deft touch over the extended wank. lt's a bit like seeing the most talented artist in your painting class meticulously render something for hours, only to smear his or hr hand in one glorious streak down the middle of the canvas at the very last second, a shit-eating grin on full display. It's bold move, and yet the work will be critiqued all the more favorably because of it. Take, for example, the chintzy synthetic horns, exploding combat sounds, and chromatic piano-echo stream that introduce the album's highest-energy cut, "Iron Pigs." It's rather crass and shocking at first, but by a few minutes in, you realize that those crude interjections are what tie together the painfully orchestrated disco rock overture that follows.
Other tracks like "Opium Den/Fade to Blue" and "Gypsum" fuck with Americana a little less overtly, relying heavily on the sounds and timbres of a good ol' fashioned close-mic'd piano; but their strange chromatic twists paint the blues in strange new hues, like flourishing ragas over a skipping Traffic record. The duo's methods of arrangement can sound a bit like bolting together frankensteins, but they also employ more elusive methods, like the impressionistic, reverberating rubato of "Open Air," where the piano staggers deep in the background of the mix, forcing us to search it out in plain sight even when it's clearly the ringleader. "Walking Robin" also toys with instrumental roleplaying; the drums are whisper-quiet, dwarfed in volume by an accompanying harpsichord cameo later on.
Despite my initial thesis, Tangents is always graceful. The artist who smeared his or her work last minute in class wouldn't even think to do so, or know where to do so, if he or she didn't have all that meticulous rendering down in the first place. Blues Control, despite often getting confused for "noise" musicians, have always been songwriters, but they've finally mastered the featherweight touch that they didn't used to have full command of. "Messing with the status quo" is deeper than a violent sound or shocking act, and it goes to show that a relatively peaceable album like Valley Tangents can manage to stir up so much more than another aimless drone or doctrinaire hardcore 7" could ever hope to. Lea and Russ have managed to get off the grid in this beautifully composed, stylistically adventurous resistance to the Big Brother age of music discourse. It feels good to rock again.
Valley Tangents is out now on Drag City.