Big Blood, "Strange Maine 11.04.06"
Caleb Mulkerin and Colleen Kinsella‚Äôs Big Blood project has consistently been one of the most delightfully unique and life-affirming bands in the American underground over the last decade or so. Admittedly, their major releases have been increasingly prickly, weird, and experimental in recent years, which likely explains why the duo are not nearly as appreciated as they should be: the current era is definitely not the easiest entry point for the curious. Prior to the run of ambitious concept albums that kicked off with 2013's Radio Valkyrie, however, the duo self-released quite a transcendent run of brilliant songs on homemade CD-Rs. It is not an exaggeration to say that the ramshackle back porch psychedelia of those early years yielded some of the most beautiful songwriting that my ears have ever heard. This 2006 release is where that hot streak first began, preceding Fire on Fire's brief but wonderful lifespan on Young God Records by a year. How they managed to be the driving creative force between two great bands at once is beyond me, but Mulkerin and Kinsella managed to churn out at least four stone-cold masterpieces in the span of two years and this was the first of them.
As is quite characteristic for Big Blood‚Äôs self-released albums, Strange Maine 11‚Äã.‚Äã04‚Äã.‚Äã06, briefly appeared as a limited run of CDRs with screen-printed covers with only the most cryptic and minimal information provided therein (and it has only been available digitally ever since).According to the release notes, "these songs were written and recorded by Rose Philistine & Asian Mae together at home."At other times, Big Blood has been described as a "phantom four piece of Asian Mae, Caleb Mulkerin, Rose Philistine and Colleen Kinsella [who] perform only as a duo. An intimate team, walking blind through each other's songs presenting one of a kind recordings tailor-made to the night's performance."Amusingly, I was not fooled by the phantom members or alter-egos, but I was fooled by the dates listed in the titles of several early albums.Mistakenly believing them to be live albums, I waited much longer to investigate both this release and Space Gallery Jan 27, 2007 than I should have.As it turns out, the date is just the night that the duo (and their phantom friends) recorded a particular batch of songs at home.I was also very surprised to learn that Mulkerin and Kinsella wrote songs separately, as the aesthetic of their early releases feels like an almost supernaturally vivid and focused channeling of a long folk tradition, albeit one filtered through an endearingly ragged and psych-damaged sensibility.Big Blood being half-rooted in the spirit realm seems almost apt and believable at times, as imagining two flesh-and-blood artists so uncontaminated by the modern world feels similarly improbable.
I suspect whoever initially wrote a particular song did not matter much by the time Big Blood was done working their dark country magic, as all of Strange Maine 11‚Äã.‚Äã04‚Äã.‚Äã06's seven pieces feel lived-in, timeless, and packed full of enough vocal harmonies to feel like a campfire sing-along.That said, the songs that prominently feature Mulkerin's frayed yelp tend to be more hook-filled and fun ones, while Kinsella's Siren-esque vocals tend to drive the more dark, moody, and unusual ones.Both sides yield their share of highlights, but the rolling and weirdly joyful ode to friendship "A Friendly Noose" is the closest thing to a great single here (despite a very non-pop layer of textural field recordings in the mix).That piece was later reprised in more raucous, stomping fashion on the first Fire on Fire EP as "Hangman," which was a great move, as that incarnation is an absolute masterpiece.This one is good too, but it is just one part of a perfect run of fine songs, notable primarily for being the most straightforwardly hook-filled piece on the album (aside from perhaps the buoyantly clopping cowpunk of "Full of Smoke").The similarly countrified "Under The Concourse" is also a strong contender for that honor once it fully blossoms into its ragged group chorus.Those two skewed homages to classic county music almost come close to courting kitsch, but Mulkerin and Kinsella bring such a deep sincerity to them that they feel like they legitimately belong in the same continuum as folks like Hank Williams."Full of Smoke" and "Under The Concourse" feel like the fruits of an alternate timeline in which the DNA of honky-tonk and early outlaw country became improbably and gloriously intertwined with that of The Incredible String Band.
While I love all of the songs in the catchier vein, it is the haunting and lovesick "Past Time" that hits the hardest and leaves the deepest impression, as Kinsella sensuously coos lines like "love made in a day, took a lifetime to recover" over a backdrop of minor key banjo arpeggios and subtly lysergic backwards guitar.It is a truly wonderful marriage of torch song, heavy psych, and traditional folk, sounding like an intensely soulful rendition of a heartbreaking ballad that Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax might have unearthed.Some of Kinsella's other vocal performances are similarly powerful though, as the closing "Slumber Me" is eerily chant-like and ritualistic, while "A Quiet Lousy Roar" masterfully emphasizes the "strange" in Strange Maine.
Built from just a tom-tom and tambourine rhythm, the music of "A Quiet Lousy Roar" sounds plucked straight out of a burlesque show in '50s Las Vegas, yet Kinsella's trilling, distorted melody and the bizarre backing vocals make it feel like a feral Joanna Newsom was dropped into Twin Peaks.¬†More than any other piece, "A Quiet Lousy Roar" showcases how truly eccentric and inventive Big Blood were at this stage, as the sole thread that runs through everything is the sense that I am hearing hallucinatory radio transmissions from the darker, weirder corners of an imaginary mid-20th century America.To their eternal credit, Big Blood‚Äôs endlessly shifting vision has always remained a deeply singular one in the years since, but this early era will always be a particular favorite of mine and the reason lies in Mulkerin and Kinsella's unerringly brilliant execution.While there were plenty of wonderfully unique, beautiful, and even ecstatic releases to emerge from America‚Äôs New Weird America/Freak Folk explosion in the late '90s, I cannot think of any other artists who managed to combine the outr√© with casual looseness, homespun charm, strong melodic sensibility, and skilled songcraft nearly as organically as Big Blood did on Strange Maine 11‚Äã.‚Äã04‚Äã.‚Äã06 and its immediate successors.This is a great album by a great band.
Samples can be found here.