Whitehorse Smolders at Club Passim
If Quentin Tarantino were to make a flick about indie-folk musicians, the result would be Whitehorse, minus the splatter. The Canadian husband and wife duo, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, drop listeners into a sonic world crackling with retro-surfer rock riffs and gritty rockabilly bass, evoking the spooky loneliness of dusty motels and grim border towns. Whitehorse stalks the sinister undertones of a forgotten America inhabited by characters powered by restlessness, longing, and sticky desires. Doucet and McClelland canvas these landscapes with all the cool cockiness of outlaw lovers on the run and damn if you don’t want to climb in their caddy and join the ride.
The pair performed at Club Passim, an intimate, historic listening room in Cambridge Massachusetts, in support of their latest album Leave No Bridge Unburned. One of the things that sets the duo apart from many of their indie-folk peers is the range of instrumentation and equipment they use in performance. Both McClelland and Doucet use looping pedals, which allows them to lay down multiple tracks in real time. Drums, keyboards, several electric, base, and acoustic guitars, and a variety of percussion toys rounds out the gear. What the pair lose in stage real estate and the ability to agilely move around the space, they gain in bringing a fully realized album experience to the audience.
Dressed for the part—Doucet in a denim jacket and cowboy hat, McClelland in a southwest-inspired mini-skirt and black, off-the-shoulder shirt bearing the white etching of a cattle skull—Whitehorse embraces its own theatricality in a way that services rather than upstages the music. This is key because as captivating as Doucet and McClelland are in their performance chemistry, their songs are equally as immersive.
The tune, “Baby What’s Wrong?” comes off as a tango between a damaged and possibly dangerous woman and her wanna-be lover. There is no mistaking the endgame of this relationship when Doucet croons, “I wanna hear a story/about a girl and a boy/a handful of his hair she tells him ‘you are my toy.’” Likewise, “Tame As The Wild Ones” embraces what it means to be helplessly entwined with someone else, “your hands/travel like sin” and “we sway and we swoon/and we make our way home/Oh this love it won’t leave me alone.” There is nothing more satisfying than listening to artists render songs that burn through the pretty trappings of romance to let what’s raw breathe. “Sweet Disaster” is a love letter penned from space, outfitted in metaphors and imagery of combustion that is both inevitable and a relief.
The vocal distortions used by the pair in the form of telephone receivers attached to mic stands add both musical and performance layers to the set. McClelland’s gorgeous vocals become winnowed, breathy, and plaintive coming to us disembodied from a payphone, a motel room, or from another planet. It’s seductive disconnect, making us lean in closer desperate to know something real about the voice at the other end. The sense of cinematic remove—whether from this type of audio or from the noir feeling created by many of the songs—allows the Whitehorse experience to resonate long after the show ends and the taillights wink out on a mean stretch of road in the black of night.