Roselit Bone – Blister Steel
Friendship Fever – 2 June 2017
Somewhere in the mountains of Oregon stands a ramshackle cabin cobbled together of cardboard, wooden pallets and corrugated tin. Patchwork curtains cover the broken window panes night and day. By the light of a lone kerosene lamp sits a skinny young man who seldom smiles. Buoyed by a bottle of cheap whiskey he scribbles notebooks full of dark poetic ramblings. Then, on an old guitar that only has five strings, he puts his poems to music.
One night, when the moon is full, he emerges from the cabin, straps on his guitar, jumps onto an old WW2 motorbike with notebooks stuffed into the saddle bags, and roars off to the slums and back alleys of the big city. There he gathers a motley crew of friends, playing a collection of pawn shop instruments, and deep into the night they play, slowly but surely sculpting Joshua McCaslin’s dark songs into eclectic, cinematic mini-masterpieces.
That’s sort of how I imagine Roselit Bone’s music being created. The reality is, of course, a lot more prosaic, but the music is not.
Roselit Bone is the place where Nick Cave and Ennio Morricone meet, where old style honky tonk collides with psychedelic noise scapes and indie attitude. It’s impossible to put a moniker on their music. Punk rock mariachi? Experimental country? Suffice to say that Roselit Bone are a nine piece band of accomplished musicians (flute, pedal steel, keyboards, trumpets, fiddle, guitars, bass and drums) whose talents together create a moody, brooding, unique hybrid sound that gets under your skin and paints stark pictures in your mind. Hank Williams has a beer with William S. Burroughs in an empty desert honky tonk as David Lynch lurks behind a velvet curtain.
Roselit Bone is very much Joshua McCaslin’s baby, and both his vocals and guitar playing are the glue that keeps the eclectic madness together. His vocals combine an authentic country hiccup with a Gun Club style wail, and his nimble guitar playing jumps effortlessly from Duane Eddy-on-steroids to impeccable Bakersfield country twanging and vicious fuzz guitar.
Their second album Blister Steel opens with a spooky reverb-drenched guitar on the title track, over which McCaslin wails to the starry desert night until his band joins in like a gospel choir from hell. An understated beginning, full of tension and pathos, it seems to warn the listener to fasten their seatbelts for the ride ahead.
Leech Child has a similar spooky vibe. This song creates mental pictures of a sun-drenched desert over which a strung out cowboy rides slowly on a skinny horse, his mind ablaze with feverish visions, trying not to think of the senorita he left behind in the dusty little town he just came from. The way Roselit Bone master dynamics on this song is really breath taking, sounding like Ennio Morricone conducting a small country band until the song implodes into a cacophony of fuzzed out guitars and distorted keyboards.
Tie Dye Cowboy is a welcome moment of levity. It’s a tongue-in-cheek classic country tune, complete with mariachi trumpets and some excellent solos on guitar, pedal steel and accordion. Riders on the Wall has my jaw dropping. If the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce was to perform on the Lawrence Welk show with a hung over Duane Eddy, it might sound a little like this.
Just Lie Still starts out as Chris Isaac at his most ethereal, then quickly turns into a heart breaking beauty as ooh ooh choirs, trumpets, Twin Peaks guitar and pedal steel lay down a majestic sound scape. The ending sounds like Johnny Cash performing at Vegas. Is there anything this band can’t do?
Live, Roselit Bone are even more of a powerhouse than on record, as I saw for myself at a New Orleans stop on their recent US tour. McCaslin, splendid in a burgundy red mariachi suit and wielding a silver sparkle Gretsch guitar, masterfully led his band through selections from their two releases. The band unleashed a torrent of cinematic sound from the stage, mesmerising the audience and gaining more than a few new fans.
Roselit Bone are a band with a dark and beautiful vision all their own, and judging from the yellow school bus that serves as their touring vehicle, they have the determination to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Good things are in store for Roselit Bone. You heard it here first.