Kloewer Loves Oblio Duo!
Will Duncan and Steven Lawson have worn many guises over the years, from the time they spent long ago in their ever-name-changing trio - The Dead Beat Dads, Green Tea, Fell off a Tall Bike and Shimashamshazam are just a few of their tossed-aside monikers - to Will's tenure in Treblekicker and the amazing psych-rock outfit Zübabi, a group who would make short work of a Can or Miles Davis tune without so much as blinking an eye. Now the two have happily fallen upon Oblio Duo, a seemingly permanent name and working relationship which includes shared songwriting credits and multi-instrumental duties.
Earlier this year the two packed into Andy Wild's loose-fit yet hard-working studio (yet to be named regardless of the work he's done there with Planes Mistaken for Stars, Big Timber, Machine Gun Blues and plenty more) armed with a number of songs, some very lofty ideas and a powerful desire to avoid mistakes made on their eponymous debut album released last year. Oblio Duo was self-recorded over an excruciatingly long period of time and suffered from a lack of experience, an even more lacking work ethic and songs that barely shine through its shortcomings. Thankfully Andy is practically a magician when it comes to motivating people and bringing out the best in them, not to mention his skills as an audio engineer.
The results are The Flag, an inviting, soulful and brilliant record. Simply put, Denver hasn't been so lucky as to receive an album this good in a very, very long time. "We've had a lot of happy accidents," Steve told me from the control room of Andy's studio the first time I heard any of the material. I was sitting on the couch more than a little impressed with what I was hearing, trying not to be too anxious to hear the rest of it. What The Flag manages to create is a wash of country, rock, folk and a heavy dose of psychedelia in a way that's almost reminiscent of the short-lived Tropicalia movement in Brazil. The comparison is a stretch - for starters, Oblio Duo sings in English, not Portuguese - but valid nonetheless. For one thing, the recording is loose, free flowing and riddled with a myriad of sounds. It maintains all the blunt atmosphere of live music without the typically horrible live recording quality. Furthermore, the honesty and aching desire is so blatant as to knock you senseless - the first voice you hear on the record is Steve singing "I don't want to take you for granted," who later croons "please be careful please be kind" and "hit me like a train." And of course, there is the multi-instrumental psych touch added by a host of guest musicians. However, most people will hear more of an Elliott Smith, Neil Young and Graham Parsons dipped in acid sound.
A few things simply have to be said, however, of the actual songs themselves. Will's skillful drumming and percussion playing are no surprise, but he also proves himself to be a beautiful pianist. His polyrhythmic melodies and impeccable sense of dynamics hold this record together superbly. Steve too, for his part, couples a country twang with frustrated sonic bliss, and his songwriting just gets better and better. The arrangements, too, show a careful consideration lacking from the first record. Changes in density and texture reflect the meanings of the lyrics, and a small army of guest musicians are skillfully deployed to create a lush sonic landscape. But most impressive are the vocal harmonies, the coalescing of Steve's honey-dipped drawl and Will's loose, Randy Newman-esque ramble. As singers, the two are incredible, whether they're making a (sorta) tongue-in-check nod to the Sons of the Pioneers or barreling through something a little more gruff. Simply put, Steve and Will sing songs that welcome listeners and embrace them.
The Flag avoids the typical trappings of a Colorado-folk-alt-country-goth
-dime-a-dozen-nothing record that is all too common in these parts. There's no preachy
melodrama (ala 16 Horsepower) or oh-so-unbelievably-tortured-warbling (ala Munly), yet this album will appeal to those same senses, the strange sounds, twangy guitars and the feeling of our rolling prairie. Not once does Oblio Duo insult the listener with a tried-and-true trick or a copped-out arrangement. It most certainly is some sort of strange Americana flipped over and re-birthed into a new and singular self.
The duo will unveil their masterpiece with a CD release concert this Friday at the Oriental Theater with the help of the Archers, another "happy accident." While recording The Flag Steve and Will became good friends with Andy Wild and one of his roommates, Vaughn McPherson, who now handle bass guitar and Fender Rhodes respectively live. What the two add, Oblio Duo has been in dire want of for a long time - an incredible live show. Simply put, these tunes are far too big to be handled by two musicians and three instruments. Now, with the Archers at their side, Oblio Duo is not only capable of playing all of their songs live, but playing them with a new ferocity and excitement. Now the loose charm of Steve and Will's hilarious onstage banter - half-truths about the island of Nauru, their mutual hatred for Portland, the donning of a certain hat so as to properly play a country tune, some strange and horribly awkward comment tripping from Will's mouth followed by his wild laughter and rolling eyes, to name a few examples - is an accent to their blistering live set.
This Friday at the Oriental is exciting too because the quartet will be joined by most of the guest musicians who provided additional color on The Flag, including an assortment of cello, fiddle, banjo, musical saw and guitar players to name a few. Other bands include Pee Pee, Everything Absent or Distorted and Bluebook. Come on down and find a rare genius - one that puts on no airs, is willing to laugh at itself and is so drunk on its own hubris so as to be unbeknownst to its inhabitants.