For the beatific country-soul musicians of Brightblack Morning Light, there’s no place like Nature
By Daniel Chamberlin
Photography by Eden Bakti
Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (2006)
When they weren’t slumming it with us youngsters at the all-ages hardcore shows, the older dudes at my Indiana high school would spend their weekend nights going “country cruisin’, reminiscin.” They’d all pitch in on a six-pack, score a dime-bag and then pile into somebody’s old car—preferably a late ’70s model sedan with stained plush upholstery and bench seating in front—and drive slowly down the deserted gravel roads and empty dirt tracks that criss-crossed the corn and soybean fields that spread for miles in every direction from the small town we called home. Though I never went on these sentimental rides—I was too young, pot-phobic and already knew that drunk driving was trouble—I was in love with their soundtrack: long-form blues from the Allman Brothers and heartbroken redneck ballads from Lynyrd Skynyrd.
These days, I score my drives back from walks in the San Gabriel Mountains north of my home in Los Angeles with the same music, maybe a bit more Neil Young and Fairport Convention in the mix. It sets the tone for the silent trekking to come and eases the re-entry into the urban landscape on the way back down. The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Will Oldham’s Ease Down The Road are ideal albums to soundtrack trips to the deserts and mountains. I’ve added Brightblack Morning Light’s new album of organic wilderness soul to the list of music perfect for such peaceful expeditions.
The two core members of Brightblack are Rachel “Rabob” Hughes, 29, and Nathan “Nabob” Shineywater, 30. Their self-titled debut for Matador Records has the dense harmonic blur of My Bloody Valentine but the music is made with the kind of instruments you’d expect to find the world famous session musicians—the Swampers—of Muscle Shoals putting to good use behind Aretha Franklin or Mavis Staples. (The album actually features two of the Staples Singers along with a trombone player from Nashville, Andy McLeod of White Magic on bongos and Paz Lenchantin—the Argentinean-American multi-instrumentalist known for her work with A Perfect Circle, Silver Jews and Entrance—on guitar.) It’s perfect for coming down from the mountains, and custom made for coming down on Sunday morning. It has an almost gospel feel—since soul music is just gospel without as much god—that invites comparisons to the lonely space-age-blues of Spaceman 3 or Spiritualized. But where Jason Pierce put opiates on the altar formerly occupied by the Holy Trinity, Brightblack has placed a respect for nature, an amalgam of environmental convictions and Native American spiritual practices. Which is sort of obvious from song titles like “A River Could Be Loved” and “We Share Our Blanket With The Owl.”
Their live performance is as quiet and intimate—maybe even more so—than their album. The most recent incarnation of their touring band includes Oregonian Elias Reitz on congas and tablas and West Virginian Ben McConnell behind the kit, with their friend Mariee Sioux, who Nabob is careful to identify as a full-blooded Paiute, opening each show. They often bring sticks and other woodland artifacts onto the stage, erecting small lean-tos or tipi-like structures. All of it swirls and refracts in the rich, resinous sound of Rabob’s Fender Rhodes organ. The vocal harmonies are chorus of whispers, while the brushed percussion is more of a sparkle than a clatter. The instruments are so quiet that cash registers at the bar interrupt the spell. Nabob’s slide guitar work hangs in the dim lights of the stage, glowing and vibrating in the air. On his instrument, a wolf cub suckles at a woman’s breast.Continue reading