Review: Blue Giant
I received two CDs in the mail from Vanguard Records last week. One of them was the self-titled debut of Portland, Oregon’s Blue Giant, an indie supergroup of sorts made up of Kevin and Anita Robinson of Viva Voce, Chris Funk of the Decemberists, Evan Railton of Swords, and Seth Lorinczi of the Golden Bears. The album will be released on July 13, exactly one week from today.
“Clean the Clocks” serves as the opening track and with it’s jangling, Byrdsian guitars, Beach Boys harmonious backing vocals, and a psychedelic jam at the end, it is perhaps the ultimate tribute to the music of the ’60s which the entire album owes a huge debt to. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that they actually pull it off.
The first single, “Blue Sunshine” is the next track. A bluegrass rock number with banjo, electric slide guitar, and extraordinary harmony vocals, this is a really fun track that would probably sound even better in a live setting with the crowd dancing and singing along.
In contrast, “Wesley” is a dark and gloomy, yet upbeat indie rocker with surf guitars and lyrics about an old friend. “All the things that made them laugh,” Kevin Robinson sings, “age like teenage photographs/Better left boxed up on shelves alone”. This is one of my favorite tracks here, although it clocks in at barely over two minutes in length.
Anita Robinson takes her first lead vocal of the album with “Lonely Girl,” a somber country ballad with indie sensibilities. Chris Funk’s subdued pedal steel is one of the highlights of the track, as is the catchy, Beatlesque (I’m referring to Paul McCartney in particular) melody.
“Target Heart” is a mid-tempo acoustic tune that is reminiscent of Full Moon Fever-era Tom Petty tracks such as “Yer So Bad,” both in it’s cheery, laid back “pop” sound and in it’s simple, yet memorable lyrics.
“When Will the Sun Shine?” is an excellent folk-rock song with slight political overtones in the lyrics such as “Flags on a hillside/Soaked through and lifeless/Hang like a house dress” and also a great slide guitar and banjo in the backing track.
“Go On” is an acoustic track, similar in many ways to early ’90s alt rock, but with a penchant for melodies that most of those bands simply did not have. Not one of my favorites, but not bad.
“Run Rabbit Run” is an energetic folk tune that prominently features the harmonica and banjo as well as a blistering guitar solo. This despairing tale ranks among the best on the album.
“Gone for Good” is a mid-tempo country rock track that features Buckingham Nicks-like harmony vocals and the sort of the songwriting craftsmanship that was mainstream in 1960s Nashville and there is also a hint of that decade’s pop music here as well, which is never a bad thing in my book. The CD case tells me that this is a duet with Corin Tucker. The press release tells me he is a member of Sleater-Kinney.
“The Game” is a straightforward rocker that musically sounds like The Clash covering Dylan with Duane Allman on guitar. It is no slouch lyrically either and although it is clear that the melody and delivery is trying to mimic Dylan, that is fine by me. One of the best tracks here.
“The Void Above the Sky” once again features the Beach Boys-inspired backing vocals, but overall Johnny Cash was a much bigger influence here with his signature boom-chicka-boom rhythm even being heard in places. Chris Funk’s pedal steel is again the highlight of the track.
“Reasons to Cry” once again leads me to think of Tom Petty with its melodic guitars, droning organ, and bleak lyrics that combine to create what sounds like an outtake from Wildflowers. Anita Robinson gives an inspired vocal performance here.
Overall, Blue Giant is a fine album by a great group of musicians. Although they are from Oregon and have influences ranging from Nashville to the Mississippi Delta, the sound is distinctly Californian, with Kevin Robinson’s pop sensibilities being clearly inspired by the likes of Petty, Brian Wilson, and Lindsey Buckingham. Bands like this in general do not stay together long, but I hope these guys break that tradition because their sound is very distinctive and I would like to hear more of it. There are definitely far better albums out there than this, but fans of both Americana and indie rock should enjoy this one and by the time they record their next album, they may have written their masterpiece. Whatever they come up with, I will certainly be listening.