Raphael McGregor plays steel guitar, both the six and eight-string kinds, and there is no one else who sounds like him. Some of the instrumentals on his new album Fretless have a dusky, hallucinatory southwestern gothic feel, but he’s a lot more diverse than that, venturing as far afield as Greek-flavored psychedelic rock, southern-fried Allman Brothers sonics, klezmer and jazz. His supporting cast here has the same kind of outside-the-box imagination: Nick Russo on guitar, Jason Sypher on bass, Oran Etkin on alto sax and clarinet and Vinnie Sperazza on drums. McGregor likes very long songs – a couple here clock in at over ten minutes – and also very short songs, like the brief nocturnal interludes that open and close the album. Some of them you could call post-rock – Austin instrumental crew My Education come to mind – while others literally run the gamut. If you like dark psychedelic music, this is for you: the whole thing is streaming at McGregor’s Bandcamp page. He and the band are playing the album release show on Sat Feb 16 at 10 at Spike Hill.
The first of the long songs is TVM, the closest thing here to My Education – or Friends of Dean Martinez on steroids. Catchy, terse bass and Sperazza’s brilliantly nonchalant yet colorful brushwork keep the groove going, Russo growing more agitated against the warm swells of McGregor’s steel and then going completely unhinged. Etkin’s alto follows much more calmly; the song eventually winds out with an edgy three-way conversation and then a long, rising drum solo as the other instruments go in the opposite direction.
Southern Border works its way stealthfully from a ghostly desert theme to a biting klezmer clarinet interlude that McGregor and Russo eventually ambush from both sides, then shift to a dark, intense, psychedelic Greek surf rock interlude that reminds a lot of the Byzan-Tones. By contrast, McGregor builds the long, hypnotic Lapocalypse methodically into a thousand-layer cake of loops, some ethereal, some savage, evoking the great British steel guitar virtuoso BJ Cole. A big-sky soundscape, Orangerie also works a slow groove, but with a distantly gypsyish flavor: pretty as it is, with Etkin’s carefree clarinet, there’s an inescapable undercurrent of unease. The last of the big numbers is Staircase, juxtaposing Dickie Betts-style southern boogie with more of that deliciously mysterious Mediterranean surf rock. Then the band takes it in a funky direction with nimble bass and circling sax and finally goes out on a joyously jazzy note.