Tongue Depressor/John McCowen – Blame Tuning & Old Saw – Country Tropics
10.5.23 by Matty McPherson
For longer than I’ve realized I’ve been thinking about Henry Birdsey. The Vermont recording engineer that has quite the capacity for taking the lap steel out of blues and folk zones towards new dispatches of noise. Sometimes this is akin to home composition, like with 2021’s Half Dragged that approached creating texture with the lap steel that were somewhere between disintegrating sound and harmonious silence. Other times it imbues itself in the most open-armed ways, as his work under with the Old Saw collective. I’ve spent the last 6 weeks chewing on a digital of that 2021 Old Saw tape, Country Tropics; it was regretfully never reviewed on the blog and yet now two years later I’m coming to it on recommendation as one of the underground’s most upstanding works of “cosmic americana”. And oh goodness, how this collective’s compositions dazzled, dismantling all tension into long drawn out sighs of lap/pedal steel, banjo, pipe organ, resonator/nylon string guitar, fiddle, and bells.
Over 37 minutes, Birdsey, Bob Driftwood, Ira Dorset, Rev. Clarence Lewis, Harper Reed, and Ann Rowlis enact their own creation of a particular kind of rural, pastoral zone. It’s somewhere between dusk and dawn, perhaps, a most bright and vivid sense of reverent harmony underpins all the instrumental decision. Yet, it’s the limited sonic scales, the necessity of repetition–from guitar finger picking to organ harmonies–beget what is essentially a dense trance. You can sit and take apart all the folk trimmings and cross-intersections of style that happen to come through, but Birdsey does find a particular space to bring out these dimensions to his steel that yearn and drone into the stars. The 4 compositions are amongst the most romantic in Birdsey’s catalog that has often been on the flip side in other collaborations and appearances.
That with which earlier this year I happened to stumble into with Birdsey & double bassist Zach Rowden’s work as Tongue Depressor, which seemed to cull its sonic identity from centuries past as much as immediate happenings in the stretching of the americana term. If there was a flip side to the cosmic americana Birdsey has found himself entangled within Old Saw, Tongue Depressor is the apt project of choice. Perhaps others would option Birdsey’s collaborations with Turner Williams Jr. as Trespass Field, itself an onomatopoeic, psychedelic sensual overload taking the lap/pedal steel towards feedback-laden stoned drone metal; itself leaning towards a more opening trance akin to Old Saw. But Tongue Depressor is in step as Birdsey’s Half Dragged and the world of Crazy Doberman that both he and Rowden too have come from. Both aren’t just the “autechre of a ‘shared sonic language that references western swing, gothic americana, and the spectralist avant-garde'”, they’re reliable collaborators that beckon to bring others fellow travelers into their world and run amok.
For Blame Tuning, their April 2023 c46 release on land art cassette mecca Full Spectrum Records, the duo bring contrabass clarinetist, John McCowen, into the fray for a 1/4 inch reel-to-reel session. Mustered on the moment, without much rehearsal, it’s a dense kind of under-the-knife listen. Caught between dark ambient raga, blues inversions, and straight punk noise, the trio create that particular kind of visceral, cathartic noise. Always in a lockstep buffalo stance, though, the trio prove they’re smooth operators.
Side A sways and shimmies, turning into a the saw blades of a lumber mill amongst a compost compactor with its frequencies. Spectral drone is the piece’s underbelly, a dense ocean built to buoy the duo’s capacity for raw noise (a biproduct of Rowden’s bass) and McCowen’s reserved contrabass clarinet. That this is “organic” comes off as disarmingly alien. Their sound lurches like tree branches in the wind, but as if it was as if the tree branch’s were steel lightposts clawing against the side of a building. It often gives it’s own wicked images and impluses to the sonic space. There’s a sense of industry, humid with tension, being documented and summoned within this noise. Side B ups the claustrophobia, starting with and staring down at a reserved drone in bird’s eye view as if it was…well, a drone. It’s lumbering and glacial, beaming down at first before quickly upping its swells and low listening hums into a cryptid’s call or snarling set of teeth that quickly takes the bulk of the sonic space. There’s a series of swift guillotine stabs acting as a tumultuous percussion. Then there’s that aching back half, the kind of drone noise sounding cross-eyed and chilled, drenched in dread beating down on it. It’s where the elements of raga & the sense of blues tradition, completely warped to a crisp, create a most “inviting”, or lively, frequency on the hi-fi. An omnibus, overpowering kind of noise, mirroring and bouncing off of the clarinet to an almost vocal dimension. Granted a sultry character by the playing of the bass, almost towards a sense of bastard chamber music that Birdsey’s pedal steel suddenly finds a ghostly melody to ride off with. It’s an engrossing climax to the B side as its swift detente settles in and packs up. To where Tongue Depressor goes next one can only follow.
Country Tropics & Blame Tuning are both sold out at their sources. Digital reigns supreme, in the mean time.