By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
They the Down Low
What if you dragged all your friends out to the sticks for a barn raising, only to find that you just couldn't bring yourself to junk up the scenery with so permanent a structure? On Americana Bauxdivine, songwriter Dan Schmidt leads the half-dozen-plus members of They the Down Low into a rural landscape, where their bluegrass chops and intimate boy-girl duets could easily build sturdy compositions, with lines straight and true. But their penchant for using frayed psychedelia, distorted effects, and outer-space antenna noises leads to an end result more like sculpture and less like construction—walls and ceilings dissolve, and the last notes glow and vaporize into the miles-wide night sky, leaving only the memories of camaraderie behind.
Schmidt is responsible for the framing of the songs; he works out the basic melody lines himself, and his many co-Down Low-ers riff off it as they see fit when they join him at a gig. As he tells me when I meet him for a drink at a Northeast bar whose patronage he seems to have abandoned a few years back when he moved to St. Paul for marriage and fatherhood, "I'm the only absolutely necessary piece, because if I don't set up a show and call everybody, they'll play with their other bands."
Schmidt, 27, also runs Pastoral Records, the label that released Americana Bauxdivine. The imprint, which has three other releases slated for this year, is a new project for the stained-glass artist. Although his early musical points of reference are a mix of Cali punk and jam bands, for these songs Schmidt "brought in really old records by Hank Williams and Patsy Cline" to demonstrate the low-fi sound he was after to Greg Reierson, who mastered the album. The little throwaway details in the production—people talking in overheard voices, bits of toasty android fuzz and warm feedback—add to the record's intimate, experimental feel.
Singing duties are shared between Schmidt and Ruth Donahue, a violinist whose voice blends country sunshine and fresh-milk purity ("She could sing the back of the mac 'n' cheese box and it'd sound really nice," her bandmate says approvingly). On the album, Patchwork's Jeremiah Nelson, Thomas Case (formerly of the Delilahs), and Tommy Tousey join a rhythm section that includes drummer Mark McPhail and experimental instrument crafter Mitchell Dose.
The result is a dozen songs that go out of their way to make sweet turns and weird twists as they summon a late-summer night spent in the country, with all your closest pals circling the campfire (assuming you are socialized enough to need more than one hand to count your pals). The best tracks are the ones that include the he-and-she back and forth of Schmidt's and Donahue's combined voices. By combining their energy, they seem to give the songs a focus and direction that convert low-range feedback abstractions and jolly banjo picking into truly pleasurable pop music.
The vocal tics on "Seasons Along the Way" seem to warn, "Here is a young man with an unfortunately prominent Adam's apple" (although Schmidt himself is without a trace of hayseed). But when the song finds him asking apologetically, "Was I outta line?" his girl sounds not a whit put out, when she saucily answers, "Yes!" On "Southpole," which starts off with a bang of a Bay City Rollers rip-off, the girl promises, "It's a long way to the South Pole, but you can go there," as if it's the new new thing in spring break destinations.
There are a few covers included here; "No Hole in my Head" is borrowed from folk songstress Malvina Reynolds (whose "Little Boxes" kicks off every episode of Weeds), and "Old and in the Way" is lifted from bluegrass mandolin man David Grisman.
Schmidt tells me his grandma helped him hand-stitch the little figure of a farmland windmill that fronts the cover art. It's a telling detail that perfectly sums up the quirky personality and common-goal craftsmanship of the whole endeavor. In the Bauxdivine universe, when the music stops, you still have your friends—and when your friends go home, you still have your headphones.
THEY THE DOWN LOW play a CD-release show with Thomas "Hookhead" Case, Hojas Rojas, and Gospel Gossip on THURSDAY, AUGUST 30, at the VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222