Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Song of the Week: "So Long Cruel World", Blanche

The construction of a song is a fascinating thing to deconstruct. I'm not sure that makes any sense but I'll forge on. When one pull's most rock songs apart that person is left with a musical skeleton that generally fits into two broad categories: blues construction or folk construction. Very often the two are the same so even this broad framework is too narrow. So, what, other than the lyrics, defines the character of a song? What makes one song a soul song and the next a blues number? One a country number, the other version a rockabilly number. Often it's the musical festoons, baubles or trinkets that define a song. In other words, it's the little things. Take The Rolling Stones' Satisfaction as an example. Again, we're setting aside the lyrics. The song, at it's heart is 4 chords. Simple as could be. But it's that famous "riff" that everyone humms. The little 3-note blues riff re-imagined from countless Jimmy Reed shuffles. But it's also that 5-beat drum break. And it's those dipped in reverb guitar fills Keith Richards slips between each verse line. Each of those things are as important as the lyrics at making the song more than just a blues based construction.

This is all just a very long winded intro to our Song of the Week, So Long Cruel World by genre defying Detroit-based band, Blanche. If you know Blanche at all, you probably know them because the main dude, singer and songwriter, Dan John Miller, aptly portrayed the stoic Luther Perkins in the film, I Walk The Line

2004 witnessed the release of Blanche's first album, If We Can't Trust the Doctors. It's an interesting stew of bluegrass, country, punk and surf all mixed together into a dark cauldron. In the middle of the album is our maudlin little song (as most of theirs are) entitled So Long Cruel World. It's a prime example, in my estimation, of a song that soars because of it's musical arrangement (festoons?) more than the structure itself. Opening with antimelodic pedal steel, a simple jazzy little bass riff played by Tracee Miller (married to Dan) on a Framus Star Bass (very similar to the one I used to play, by the way!) brings the song into whatever structure it might pretend to have. A simple banjo riff joins as the ethereal pedal steel falls into a melodic riff. Then Dan Miller ads a guitar riff worthy of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western which twangs us into the whoa-is-me vocals. The band continues to add elements and riffs that lay on top of each other and skitter over the beats like a goony bird trying to stick a landing. There is little to no central musical framework. In between all of this - and it is in-between and not "over it" --  Dan Miller's hillbilly inflected vocals dramatizing one's suicidal yearnings are importantly backed up by the detached vocals of Tracee in a back and forth reminiscent of the work done in the early 80's by John Doe and Exene Cervenka

In the end the lack of structure and the lack of genre (who's in charge here anyway?) to the song is what I think makes the song so interesting. It's not for everybody, I'll admit that. But give the song a few listens and tell me if it doesn't become a way-homer for you.


  1. Weird timing- i just ordered the second cd by these guys the other day. I got curious about Dan Miller because I liked the job he did as Luther. His wife played Mrs. Perkins in Walk the Line as well. I hadn't heard this song before.

    This sounds like there is a pop song in there trying to fight its way out of the muck, but it keeps getting dragged back down into the swamp of the banjo and the tremeloed guitar. The slow tempo and the length of the song itself add to that feeling. It all works somehow though.

    It reminds me a little of the Handsome Family, another husband and wife act that revels in the maudlin.

  2. I like the banjo chord which plays one jerky step behind the bass, really cool. I think it runs throughout the song, but is most obvious at the beginning. I hear that pop song too Mazz and it lands part of the song in the mid eighties to my ear, a surprising turn as it is not the decade they seem to want to dwell in.

  3. I agree in regards to the pop song. But, to beat a dead horse, the arrangement with long instrumentation breaks and discordant and competing sounds keeps it from fully going there.

    In regards to the 80's thing, I get that too. I think it is the tinge of gothic in their music. As noted earlier, it's mainly a reference to the LA band X that I hear but groups like the Plimsouls and even The Cure could make a claim of influence. And the trash-sound bands like Jesus and Mary Chain and Television Personalities.

  4. Mazz, let me know how you like the CD. I only have If We Can't Trust The Doctors and like it very much. I keep coming back to it. The range is actually quite impressive. Some of it sounds like REM, some of it like a Charles Manson dream.

  5. I really dig this! I definitely hear an "80s college/roots rock" vibe , to me it sounds a bit Gun Club (the guitars) meets Wall of Voodoo (the lead vocal). I love the tremoloed/reverbed guitar being egregiously vibrato-armed, though I think it is most effective as accompaniment; when it takes center stage in the solo section, it doesn't pass scrutiny (for me anyway). Thanks for posting this, I am glad to have been hipped to this.

  6. Morgan,

    Got the cd, and I like it a lot. First impression is it sounds a little more conventional than the song you posted, but they are still working the same ground. I'm not crazy about her voice, but overall i like what they are doing. I like that they throw some touches of humor in with the gothic mood. They do a cool version of "Child of the Moon," the Stones song; they slow it down and draw it out a bit. Good stuff.