New Traditionalists

Local bands look to the past with forward-thinking music

Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub
Blue Notes (Merge)

In the time and place in which we live, it’s virtually impossible to discuss a record without some mention of the record label on which said album was released. In the indie-rock world more so than in the mainstream rock world, a record label is more than a business partner; it is generally a pretty good indication of the type of music that its artists release. Therefore, it may seem incredibly strange that Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub’s third and latest record Blue Notes just came out on indie-rock stalwart Merge Records, considering that Burch and company have made a record that sounds more Nashville than anything on a “Nashville” label.

Burch and several of his accomplices in the WPA Ballclub are members of our very own Lambchop, which also makes its home on Merge. And even though it’s not surprising that Nashville labels weren’t given a go at this record, it still speaks volumes that this North Carolina label—better known for its founders’ band, Superchunk—has released a traditional country record. At any rate, Blue Notes’ release on Merge only points to the label’s dedication to good music, whether it be rock, punk, C&W, or lounge-pop.

They may be on an indie-rock label, but Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub are no “alt-country” outfit. Blue Notes is blissfully irony-free country-and-western music—the liner notes ask the listener to “Tune in to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night.” Even without this reference to Nashville’s country music heritage, Blue Notes recalls the days (before my time) when a body could drive across the country and stay tuned in to WSM all the way. Burch and company don’t imitate the music of that era so much as conjure it up fresh on their own. Songs like “Forever Yours” and “Long Distance Call” walk the line between country and rock ’n’ roll that Elvis and Ricky Nelson so cleverly blurred half a century ago. “How Do I Know” and “Hard Women Blues” saunter through a thousand dive bars with a polite tip of the hat to Hank Williams Sr. and all those who sauntered there before.

Burch’s rich and versatile voice is the real centerpiece of this album, at once a combination of Charlie Louvin’s twang and Waylon’s drawl, all the while tempering a falsetto that mimics the longing of the lap steel. The delicately beautiful “Isolda” shows off Burch’s voice to great effect, as the melody arches through the simple chords. It’s an unusual voice, yet one steeped in tradition, and it matches the slight melancholy of the lyric, painting the picture of Isolda perfectly: “You don’t dance / To the music in the room / The smell of ginger your perfume.” Paul Niehaus’ pedal steel gently sweeps through the musical backdrop, perfectly complementing Burch’s vocal.

The players’ faultless musicianship and easy comfort with the songs make this record a real joy to listen to. And the appeal of Blue Notes should be broad indeed: to country fans, who may be longing to hear a record as forward-thinking yet steeped in tradition as this one; to indie-rock fans, who may be longing for a real education in country music; and to music lovers of all kinds, who may want to hear a record that sounds as if it were lovingly crafted by hand, not computer. For certain, Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub have made one of the most satisfying records of the year and for a long time after that.

Future past

In a town teeming with as many musicians as ours is, it shouldn’t be surprising that an accomplished electronic-pop outfit such as Venus Hum exists. However, to those of us who have spent some time getting snubbed in local music stores because Tom Wopat just walked through the door, Venus Hum are not only surprising but refreshing in a palate-cleansing way. The trio’s self-released, self-titled debut CD has been lodged in Tower Records’ local artists Top 10 for the entire summer, so quite a few people here must be jonesing for Venus Hum’s hopeful blips, buzzes, and beats.

The band—they are not simply two producers and a singer—came together about a year ago in the same way that so many bands around here do. Tony Miracle (synthesizers) was from Cincinnati, Kip Kubin (synthesizers) hailed from New Jersey, and Annette Strean (vocals) grew up in Montana; each had made his or her way here to work in music. Miracle was the fourth person Strean met after she moved to town; the two were introduced by mutual friends who knew they would get along as songwriters and friends. Venus Hum came together when Miracle, who had done a great deal of production work with Kubin, gave a copy of one of Strean’s songs to Kubin to get his ideas on it. Kubin returned with a treatment of the song that was closer to what Strean heard in her head than anything before.

Even more than as a band, Venus Hum functions as a unit: Many of their songs start as visual descriptions, which the individual members “paint” with any sound available. Miracle remembers one time when they needed a percussive noise for a track, so he sent Kubin into the garage with a microphone. When Kubin got the sound, he didn’t even bother to tell Miracle what he had struck to make it. But Venus Hum’s songs are also coherent compositions—proof that the members know when to experiment and when to rely on the classics. Rosemary Clooney and Debbie Reynolds come up in conversation along with electronic artists like Mouse on Mars, To Rococo Rot, and Bjork. “My two big loves are extremely adventurous sonics in music and classic songwriting,” Miracle says. “That’s true for all of us, I think.”

The classic songwriting angle also accounts for the somewhat retro sound in much of Venus Hum’s music. The simple keyboard melody of “Montana,” for instance, recalls Martin Gore’s finest work with Depeche Mode. As Miracle explains, “I always prefer what people in the past thought the future was going to be than what people of today think the future is gonna be. I’m not that interested in future music…. To me, it’s way more interesting what the people in the ’60s and the ’70s and even the early ’80s thought the future was gonna be like. It was so much more optimistic.”

Venus Hum’s music indeed sounds optimistic, thanks in large part to Strean, whose confident and alluring voice melds the best of contemporary singers like Tori Amos (without the self-indulgent histrionics) and Bjork with classic “song-singers” like Clooney and Reynolds. Her voice soars over big beats in “Wooly Snow” and sounds downright intimate in “Wordless May.” Throughout the album, Miracle and Kubin’s dense electronic textures provide lots of color yet leave enough room for Strean’s voice to breathe. On “Sonic Boom,” another album highlight, the distorted squawks, the powerful beats, her captivating vocal, and the clear keyboard melodies all manage to find their own space within the song.

As fulfilling as it is surprising, Venus Hum’s debut should continue to make waves in Nashville for some time. Currently ranked at No. 2 on Tower’s local Top Ten list, between a guitar-pop band (Joe, Marc’s Brother) and a rootsy singer-songwriter (Tim Carroll), Venus Hum may well help change the way Nashvillians think about their hometown music. Maybe even Tom Wopat will become a fan, buy a sequencer, and leave guitar-store shoppers in peace.

This piece appeared in the Nashville Scene