For a scene that has been in the spotlight since 2001, Detroit
has produced very few middle-of-the road sounds. The Gories and The
Detroit Cobras are straight garage. The White Stripes mix genres,
but polarize within hard rock, blues and punk. And so it goes with
Blanche, the first overtly country act to emerge from the Detroit
scene.

Blanche is, above anything else, refreshing. They play country
music that would offend non-country fans. That ol’ Nashville
twang has seen a resurgence as of late, but it has as much to do
with misnomers as it does with men in black: Contrary to
underground myth, The Old 97’s and Wilco are not — and
have never been — country. In contrast, Blanche throw back
the moonshine like seasoned veterans: fiddles, banjos, pedal steel,
finger picking and female harmony all echo like the lost ghosts of
the Midwest’s past.

The catalyst for the hootenanny is Dan John Miller, who busts
out of the starting block like an indie rock Lyle Lovett: tall,
dapper and hopelessly unkempt. He’s got a lot of Michigan in
his thick, resonant voice, but he’s got enough inflection to
pull off the dilapidated doctor role.

Miller’s no one-trick pony. The album’s catchiest
track, “Who’s to Say,” finds the old hobo
pleading like a helpless romantic over gorgeous, organic swells. He
plays up his cornball poet role on “Do You Trust Me?”
(“It doesn’t take an honest man to sing an honest
song”) and the hammy “Garbage Picker.” Elsewhere,
“The Hopeless Waltz” brilliantly wilts like a
sun-drenched garden, and if the lyrics of the Gun Club cover,
“Jack on Fire,” draw the Detroit connection a bit too
clearly it’s probably done intentionally (“I am like
Jack and I’ll tell you this / I will be your lover and
exorcist”). If there’s a criticism to be levied against
Dr. Miller, it’s that he’s somewhat vanilla: His stab
at the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” is technically
flawless, if a bit boring.

Just like Lovett, Miller’s got a redheaded bride of his
own: Bassist/vocalist Tracee Mae Miller plays the vampy/virginal
sidekick role. Unfortunately, she has all of the attitude and none
of the chops: Her vocals, occasionally prodding the wit out of her
husband, too often sound vapid and uninspired.

Tracee’s subpar voice is, in a way, a compliment to the
rest of the band. Backing a thousand twang-riddled fakers, Tracee
might go unnoticed. Not in Blanche. The band ties knots of warm,
fresh country Scoutmaster-tight, exposing the best — and
worst — of the vocalists. The ingredients are all typical,
but the outcome is always crisp, hauntingly atmospheric and
charmingly familiar.

Country music has always had issues with identity and Blanche
will undoubtedly be accused of plagiarism. After all, what does the
Midwest know about country music? Blanche doesn’t care.
Somewhere up north, in a ghost town on a shore, there’s a
ghastly, awkward barn raising. And Blanche is the only band that
dressed warm enough to take the gig.

 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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