I guess it all started a few months ago. Random pictures on facebook and vague yet enticing words describing some secret recording happening at the Dastardly house. No real giveaways, just little snippets; “Reamping horns in pvc pipe #mysteryrecordingproject.” What could it all mean? Well, we all found out yesterday when Gabe Liebowitz decided to unleash this much talked about EP on the masses more than a month in advance of the release show planned for Schubas on August 30th.
I’d known for quite some time, since I saw them play a show at Beat Kitchen way back in November of last year, that Dastardly’s music was changing. Even with their EP Bury Me In The Country that dropped in January, I didn’t feel like they had captured the all around oddness of their new live show. They were still very much the folk/country band that built itself up on the shoulders of Jimmie Rodgers and Townes Van Zandt, but they were bringing in all kinds of new stuff. I think at the time I said that their new arrangements reminded me of Miles Davis. And now, just nine months later, they’ve delivered their own kind of Blue.
In all reality I’ve had a copy of this for a few weeks, but didn’t want to write anything about it until closer to the release. I didn’t want to give anything away, because I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by Ballads In Blue. It’s much deeper than either of Dastardly’s previous efforts, taking us into the abyss of Liebowitz’s mind where the old shack of country music legends is picked up and laid down in a Lynch-ian alternate universe where all music comes together. The world created on Ballads In Blue contains the most beautiful of dreams, and the darkest nightmares.
The EP, while short, seems to exist in a timeless space. I’m convinced that if you listened to it on an uninterrupted loop, you’d never know when it ended and started over. It has such a sense of cohesiveness that it plays like one long track broken up into acts. The weird stuff really starts to kick in on the second track, “So Long, Caroline.” Much of the track is focused on the lead vocals, but there is constantly something in the background reaching out and trying to steal your attention. It’s like a sea chanty played by carnival musicians who just happen to be travelling with Johnny Greenwood.
There’s a lot of collaboration between Chicago musicians on this record, including: members of The Shams Band, Rachele Eve and Dan Price (formerly of UMMA), Ty Maxon, Santah, the list goes on and on. The final song, “Blue Dreams,” features a choir of about 15 voices on top of the usual 5 that make up Dastardly. It gives this track a bit of a Hollywood ending, like the show stopper that closes a big musical production. All the voices come together to give the EP a sense of optimism that is crushed at the end by a discordant hodgepodge of sounds.
When I put Dastardly at the top of my list of bands to watch in 2012, this is the kind of EP I thought they might pull out. There are hundreds of words you could use to describe the sound, and yet it defies definition. Once you hear Ballads In Blue there will be no question about the groups talent or ambition. The only question remaining will be “What will they do next?” I for one can’t wait to find out.