Monday, April 26, 2010

The Blanche Hudson Weekend

From the ashes of one band's demise, there frequently rises another.

Such is the case with The Blanche Hudson Weekend

I originally got to know and became friendly with their members two years ago, when they came to New York performing as their previous band The Manhattan Love Suicides. Between then and now I have written extensively about their musical output both with that band as well as their side projects.

Guitarist Darren Lockwood and vocalist Caroline McChrystal (both songwriters) dissolved that group (allowing other members to pursue their own musical visions) and quickly created their latest group The Blanche Hudson Weekend.

For those curious about the name, Blanche Hudson is the character played by Joan Crawford in the classic film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane.

In addition to the appealing rock music they make, Darren and Caroline have always had a unique and creative visual side to their records. With The Blanche Hudson Weekend, they have continued this tradition and have taken it to an even more combined amusing and macabre level.

On their initial 3 song 7 inch output, The cover shot on the Letters To Daddy 7" EP is a publicity still of Joan Crawford taken in the 1920's or early 1930s when she was a brand new young actress.

The pic on the back of that same single is Bette Davis (as Baby Jane Hudson) dragging Joan Crawford (as Blanche Hudson) across the bedroom floor after kicking her repeatedly in the head. It's edgy, twisted, definitely cool stuff - Darren and Caroline's appreciation for vintage movies clearly on display.

But what about the music, you ask?

On the lead track "Crying Shame" Darren's reverberated single guitar lines are alive and well. Positioned against the eternal Ronnettes-style "Be My Baby" drum beat, Caroline sings in a breathy vocal about how "you got me going crazy, you got me on the run." Which ultimately leads to how she has "got to pin you down and kick you right in the head!" And that's just the first verse. The chorus is a lovely affair with the title line repeated against a wonderful backdrop. Caroline's vocals are lovingly bathed in just the right amount of echo as Darren's guitar chords ring straight and true. With each successive pass through of the progression more depth can be heard. It's on the change at the 2:08 mark that I'm reminded of how much I love what these two do. This 50's-meets-present times dips into The Raveonettes playbook no doubt, which in itself is a move away from what The Manhattan Love Suicides somewhat harsher and noisier sound was all about. The end-out is beautiful with it's additional glockenspiel melody enhancement and Brian-Eno-Here-Come-The-Warm-Jets fade to infinity. Just my speed.

Side "AA" of the disc (no "b side" here) opens with "The Last Ride," a full on fuzz-bomb affair that points as much to The Velvet Underground's lo-fi noisy lineage as well as their Manhattan Love Suicide past. With a gorgeous rising melody line pushed through overdriven guitar distortion, Caroline uses the metaphor of being up on the executioners "scaffolds" to describe the tender balance of a friendship (or musical partnership?) that needs to end. How "the balance has always been broken" and now just needing "someone to pull the chord" to end it. Even "looking back at old photos, shows them what they already know."

The chorus is a perfect blend of melody and questioning lyrics, stating "how did it come to this, where id did it all go wrong? You could have walked away, not let it go on so long."

On the final coda, the writer goes somewhat philosphical on it all, stating that "we're all living in the shadow of the gallows," and how ultimately "we're all dying in the shadow of the gallows." It's insightful, common sense intelligence - but what's even greater is the sound of this song. Magnificent bliss of guitar walls cutting a swath through everything in it's path.

The second "AA" side track, "Noise and Fury" continues the early Velvet Underground feel with Darren filling all the behind-vocal-spaces with washes of blurry guitar. Continuing a stylistic theme from their Manhattan Love Suicides days, Caroline's "doo, doo, doo's" pay homage to The Jesus & Mary Chain's "Happy When It Rains" period.

The song is quick and forward moving. Perfect for a fast drive in your car with the widows wide open. Don't ask Caroline to apologize, 'cause she won't do it. "Don't try and call me on the phone. Forget it all, leave me alone."

For their follow-up EP, the BHW's visual theme is continued.

The Rats In The Cellar 7" EP front cover shot is Joan Crawford again in another publicity still taken from the 1920's /early 1930s.

The pics on the back are Joan Crawford again. It's uncertain what movie the picture with the 2 guns is from, but the one with the axe comes from the movie Strait Jacket.

The text about "Mad Creatures Of The Night...."etc comes from the movie poster of an obscure movie called The Ghastly Ones from the 1960s. Directed by New York exploitation/grindhouse master Andy Milligan.

As for the songs, they are magnificent.

Side A opens with "Grip Of Fear" - which lays out a tale of introspection, questioning and possibly paranoia. “They keep telling me its cold outside. I should stay indoors ‘cause the streets are mean,” Caroline begins. However, she reveals that “it can never be as dark out there as it is in me.”

With the addition of longtime production collaborator Matt Robson on drums, a subtle yet noticeable rhythmic swing now anchors Darren and Caroline’s sound. The guitar lines are (as always) distinct and melodic.

“What keeps me awake at night? Who’s behind the door?” It’s a dread many have felt at one time or another. Robert Smith of The Cure also once similarly wondered if “the head on the door” was only “a dream.” Is it real, or simply your imagination running away with you? Caroline’s vocal sound is tracked to just the right degree on the verses, with a slight chorusing providing an ear-pleasing depth.

The overall progression to the song echoes the best that a band like The Jesus & Mary Chain ever had to offer. Darren has mastered this like few others and you can really hear the care attention to detail he puts into these recordings. In addition to the clear melody line on top, there are additional rhythm guitar chords providing a slight displacement to the dominant rhythmic accent.
The song continues to build until it reaches its first peak – a beautiful rising chorus complete with angelic “ah, ah, ah” vocals from Caroline. This is immediately followed by another strong melodic guitar line that brings to mind the tonal qualities of the very best from Echo & The Bunnymen. Caroline returns to the opening vocal line and Darren plays out a single note guitar passage. But the song is far from over and takes you even higher with one more spin through the chorus – huge and triumphant. The song has reached its sonic emotional peak and the band drives a bit looser throughout this coda, leading up to an eventual string scraping fadeout.

Following that is the song "Sharks"- underscoring, once again, Caroline’s poetic lyrical touch, and Darren’s ability to harness a tragically heroic melody. Opening with a chiming, near twangy two-chord motion, one could imagine Hope Sandoval approving of this overall mood. However, Caroline eschews any Mazzy Star-like lethargic vocal styling for a more urgent, near falsetto delivery. “They made us swim in the shallow water, but the sharks just came to the shores,” she sings. The perfect blend of vocals and ever-building dense layers of sonics demonstrates recorded songcraft at its finest. Clocking in at an emphatically concise two minutes, this aural stepchild of VU’s “Heroin” and JAMC’s “Some Candy Talking” leaves you wanting for more.

Side "AA" contains a single song titled "Only Snow." It opens rather gently, with Darren playing the guitar chords arpeggio style. “Stitch up the pieces, of my black heart,” Caroline sings in a soft, breathy vocal. “The cold blade cuts it up again,” she continues. “To walk alone, I die once more.” Which leads to the ultimate conclusion that “it’s never summer – there’s only snow.” Strategic use of bass guitar adds to the building tension, as the guitar arpeggios play on. The layers of sound become denser, more forceful. It sounds like violins or violas are entered into the mix.

Darren’s creative approach on the songs center section finds him coaxing a sound out of the guitar strings that would not be out of place along side John Cale’s uneasy ambience.

Mo Tucker-like tom tom drumming now rises into the mix, as Caroline repeats the opening phrase. The drumming evolves into additional sonic palettes (adding snare) while a bass line suddenly drives an unanticipated counter-melody. This lengthy instrumental passage rises to a dissonant crescendo, and then slowly dissipates to rumbling tom tom drums, the initial guitar arpeggios and a singular atonal string sound.

In summation, I have to say I am loving the direction this band is now heading. Within the traditional structures of “rock music” there is a clear sense of intelligence and a desire to take chances going on here. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.

Listen to this music and find out how to get these records yourself, at these links below:
Additionally, read my previous reviews of their works (with additional direction to audio links), here:


x said...

Fantastic, detailed and passionate review.

First- I like it much, much more than Manhattan Love Suicides music. The musicians took the right direction. The sound is somehow more natural. It sounds as if they feel better in this kind of music than in what they did before. That's, at least, my personal impression. "Noise and fury" is my favourite track.

Second- I'm happy you've mentioned the artworks, Dave. I find this certain kind of 'collage' booklets to be perfect for this sort of music. It reminds me of the old punk rocks recordings where such style was a norm. The old school photographs are very well composed with all the other stuff and the whole mix is a perfect addition to the music.

It's nice to see a band paying attention to the visual side of their music. Every great band did the same thing- Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Tool, Genesis, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Rush and many more. And to mention a band which clearly has an influence on Blanche- The Raveonettes did that, too. The album artwork for The Chain Gang of Love is one of my all time favourites.

I hope the band continues their creative efforts. They're on a good way.

DaveCromwell said...

Glad you like it, Radek. It's no secret that I've been a fan of these music makers for a while now - and I'm totally loving their new stuff.

I have to agree the artwork that goes along with records like this (essentially limited edition 7" vinyl records) adds to the overall appreciation of what's being presented. These artists here have always made it a point to include clever and interesting visuals with their recorded output.

It's refreshing to see this sort of thing making a comeback, as we hurl deeper and deeper into the digital age.

x said...

"It's refreshing to see this sort of thing making a comeback, as we hurl deeper and deeper into the digital age."

Absolutely. Personally, if I had to choose between one 'physical' CD with a beautiful artwork and all the music in the world in a digital form, I would choose the former. Of course- digital downloads are helpful when some music is hard to reach in a form of cd. But they can't be a real substitute.

Digital music is like an audio recording of a woman's voice. You can hear her but you can't see her eyes, her smile, can't feel the warmth of her body or sense the scent of her perfumes. And then there's a real woman. The choice is obvious.

DaveCromwell said...

Wow, I like that woman's body comparison (almost as much as I like woman's bodies - lol!)

But what you say there reminds me of something I recently read Thurston Moore say - how he wouldn't like having a digital reader (like a Kindle or an iPad) - because he loves the tactile feel of books - loves the smell of them.

There is something to be said for that.

Now, I'm no "anti digial" snob - far from it - my digital collection grows and grows - and I actually listen to more music digitally on my MP3 player than any other way (though I still rock the cassette player at home ;-) ) but there is a real pleasure in holding something tangible in your hands.

smork said...

cool. i took a lisdten to them and i like them. i liked MLS, but this tine i like them more. i mean they haven't change their music style much. i am glad they don't hide their voices behind that "loose string" sound - the mastering is much better.
yh yes the artwork is worth of mentioning. i think it represent the music inside very well. it looks so retro. :)
oh, nice writting. got to admit as i read that is something about MLS i was burning to hear the songs so i didn't pay mutch attention to the style. :))))))))

Anonymous said...

1 Great
2 Review
3 Dave ;)

DaveCromwell said...

Thanks, Anouk! That's 3 words ;-)

I'm glad you dig 'em, Tadas. "Liking them even better than the MLS" seems to be a recurring theme. I'm sure the band will be happy to hear that. I agree that the added emphasis on bringing out Caroline's vocals, adds to the overall listening experience.

That combined with the more sophisticated drumming (Darren's guitars, as always, creatively presented) shows a band still eager to evolve their sound.

Anonymous said...

Far more interesting than our current TV debates "stariing " politicians.

Sonic noise and Joan Crawford art work, what's not to like!

x said...

"Now, I'm no "anti digital" snob - far from it"

Of course not. I'm neither. But both of us know that the album artwork and everything else is very important for the whole musical experience. Young people very often take the digital file as a whole experience, which is, at very least, sad. It's good that more and more bands tend to keep the old art&music traditions alive.