Daughn Gibson, 'Me Moan' (Sub Pop)

7
Me Moan
Critical Mass
Release Date: July 9, 2013
Label: Sub Pop

by Joe Gross

With apologies to Le Tigre:

What's your take on Daughn Gibson?
What's your take on Daughn Gibson?
What's your take on Daughn Gibson?
What's your take on Daughn Gibson?
Himbo!
Genius!
Himbo!
Genius!

Rarely has a crowd been as entranced and/or baffled as the mob that witnessed this goth-country pinup's June 2012 appearance at Austin's Chaos in Tejas festival. His mysterious, largely one-man debut, All Hell, had surfaced a few months earlier, full of acoustic-guitar torpor, lovely piano melodies, and basso-lounge crooning. Rumor was that he hadn't played live solo much (previously drumming in nondescript indie-rock outfit Pearls and Brass), and frankly; nobody knew what the hell to expect.

That even extended to his appearance. An actual crowd murmur trailed Gibson as he walked onstage: Wait, the dapper, half-shirtless guy on All Hell's cover wasn't a model, a decoy in place of the unsightly Jandekian figure who actually made the music? Gibson, who might as well have wandered straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, really is that lantern-jaw handsome? What the…? Then the drum machine and the synths and the basso-lounge singing kicked in, and among his newfound fans (or haters) there was denial, anger, bargaining, depression (or elation), and then, yes, acceptance. This was actually happening. He is actually real.

Some thought it was utter bullshit, aural sub-karaoke wool pulled over hipster eyes. Others thought it was brilliant, one-man-against-the-world, trucker-Portishead oddness of a rare order. And over the next year or so, that polarization intensified. One woman I know, no shrinking violet, said she found him terrifying. Another suggested there should be a pinup calendar of him doing handy things around the house. Whereas a male friend just bit his knuckle, though it was hard to tell if he meant the gesture in the Sonny-Corleone-ready-to-kill-Carlo way or the man-I-wanna-fuck-him way (or, uh, both).

Obviously, Sub Pop saw something there. So now, on label debut Me Moan, Gibson is working with a full band, fleshing out his spare songcraft with actual other humans. The result is not quite as derivative as detractors would have you imagine, but nor is he the second coming of Scott Walker (having staged two or three comebacks now, Walker takes care of that sort of thing himself).

In underground punk and post-punk, baritone croons have produced radically different effects. Glenn Danzig's bellow reached back to the King, the sound of Ed Wood making an Elvis movie. Ian Curtis' booming lament was like a bubble protecting him from the void. As for Beat Happening, Calvin Johnson's read as a subversion of the baritone's traditional masculinity (that, and his child-like dancing).

It is hard to tell what Gibson's means, but your reaction to it will likely determine your feelings about Me Moan overall. There's more than a little Johnny Cash in here, especially given the mutant-country nature of the songwriting, full of obtusely noirish vibes and tales of love gone sideways. Sometimes it works well, a narcotizing croon that gives these strange tales an extra dimension of sadness ("I'll take a job for nothing-something an hour / I don't even know if I can lie / I'll play it off by acting shy.") And sometimes it's just eye-rolling. Cash's baritone was from a different time, to put it mildly, and the lip-curl with which Gibson graces certain syllables is difficult, in a post-irony age, to take seriously. (See "That guuurl had a good dream," and/or the paean to a "state troooopur's doew-turr."

But the melodies and rhythmic accents here hang together as decent hooks, if not poppy ones. The drum pulses, twang riffs, and snare rolls that launch the album with "The Sound of Law" are all tense promise (though a serious reminder of Walker's own "Cossacks Are"), after which Gibson's hyper-stylized voice and diction either sell the drama or derail it completely: "Mah daddy wuz a BEAst! / He seem'd to knooooow weeelll." (Yeah, oy vey, but then you find yourself humming the riff and mumbling along, and then you have to reevaluate the guy.) The eye-rolling potential hits its apex on "All My Days Off," where such inflections completely overwhelm the indie-country ramble: "Dreamin' with the TV lit / That I woke up with a stooor-let," not to mention "Allll my deees / All mah deees oooooo-fff."

On the other hand, low-end vocal pretension goes nicely with synthetic sounds. The electronic stutter of "Mad Ocean" gives way to one of Me Moan's strongest songs, from the oboe-or-melodica-sounding melody to his smartest vocal delivery: "Shakin' like a battle light." And he knows his way around a vocal sample: On "You Don't Fade," a vintage-y guitar twang and deep-focus, drum-machine hi-hat click smartly with a sampled Ay-I-I. This new/old enjambment isn't exactly a fresh trick — as you might recall, Moby cashed in doing it — but it opens up the music nicely.

As for the Scott Walker thing, who knows if Gibson's a fan, but it's hard for any Walker nerd not to hear the simple groove and '80s synth whoosh of "Won't You Climb" and not think of Night Flights-era Walker Brothers or Scott-era Climate of Hunter. Gibson wouldn't be the first pretentious young man to fall under that spell, but then again, maybe that's just how the dude sounds. There are no clues here to help you track the sincerity or lack thereof. Maybe the next album will go full-on Nashville, and the South in his voice will rise again. Maybe he'll pull an Alex Chilton moving from the Box Tops to Big Star and use a completely different voice for the next one. Maybe he's just the Silver Jews for the Riff Raff generation. Whatever happens, he will likely remain that handsome and this head-scratching.

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