Breanna Barbara Brings Her Haunting, Intense, Enveloping Psychedelic Blues to Berlin
Blues guitarist/songwriter Breanna Barbara’s debut album Mirage Dreams – due out this Friday, and soon to be streaming at Bandcamp – blends the otherwordly, hypnotic tumbles and rolls of Mississippi hill country icons R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford with the raw desperation of early 90s gutter rock bands like the Chrome Cranks and the lysergic menace of the 13th Floor Elevators. As relentlessly dark as her music is, there’s actually a happy backstory to how the album came to be. It’s a triumph of good ears and a throwback to an earlier era when there was much more of a music industry.
Back in 2014, she recorded a bunch of songs on her phone and slapped them up on Bandcamp. Then she sent those files to Andrija Tokic, who produced both the Alabama Shakes and Hurray for the Riff Raff. Tokic, being a purist, was taken by the raw intensity of Breanna Barbara’s music, and decided to make an oldfashioned, big-room studio album with her. They assembled a crack Nashville band including most of Clear Plastic Masks (Matt Menold on lead guitar and organ, Charles Garmendia on drums, and Eduardo DuQuesne on bass), plus Ben Trimble of Fly Golden Eagle on keys; Jon Etes on upright bass, pedal steel and keys, and David Grant sharing drum duties, The result is one of the most stunningly, darkly individualistic releases of 2016. Breanna Barbara is playing the album release show at around 10 PM on July 22 at Berlin, under 2A.
The album’s careening opening track is Sailin’, Sailin’, its chilling Requiem for a Dream-influenced imagery awash in a sea of guitars and garage-rock organ. And then it’s suddenly over. Who Are You, a defiant individualist’s anthem, is your classic one-chord jam, lit up with DuQuesne’s high-register bass riffs and more of that creepy organ in the background. The Race has an echoey ominousness to match Breanna Barbara’s airy, wary vocals and the lyrics’ grim undercurrent: it reminds of the Bright Smoke in their earliest, bluesiest moments. Menold’s creepy chromatic multitracks complete the picture.
She lets her vocals cut loose on the slowly marauding, dynamically shifting, metaphorically-charged Nothin’ But Your Lovin’, bringing to mind Molly Ruth’s most recent electric work. The band builds a delicious Carnival of Souls ambience with boomy drums, a web of tremolo guitars and phantasmagorical keys in Baby Where You Are. The story draws on a funny incident where Breanna Barbara lent her phone to a stranger who needed to get in touch with his girlfriend – as it turned out, he’d been just been sprung from jail after getting caught jumping a subway turnstile..
The album’s title track is also its most psychedelic, the bandleader’s hypnotically tremolo-picked Telecaster contrasting with her howling vocals. She follows that with the album’s lone cover, reinventing Melanie’s Some Say (I Got Devil) with equal parts gothic menace and punk fury. By contrast, the spare, lingering I’m All Right – the oldest original on the album – brings to mind something from the first Hole album reduced to lowest terms.
The sardonic Jessie Mae Hemphill-influenced Where’s My Baby has an epic, trippy sweep, the whole band – bass, drums, organ and a tsunami of guitars – all on overdrive. The vengefully crescendoing Go Back blends all sorts of cool reverb and icy vintage chorus-box guitar textures. The album’s most harrowing number, Daddy Dear, rises and falls in waves of spare reverb guitar and deep-space elecric piano, tracing the grim trajectory of a deadly drug overdose. The final cut is the stark, death-obsessed Wood Demon. Whether you consider this psychedelia or blues – and it’s both – it’s one of the best albums of the year. And this band is amazing live – their opening set at this past Saturday’s festival at Pier 97 over on the west side raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night.