How the South Sounds

by Nick Grewal

The Carrboro, North Carolina-based record label Paradise of Bachelors is hitting its stride. Its recent slate of releases is strong, and together these records indicate a more coherent and specific vision than many of its competitors in today’s indie label ratrace. Think vintage 4AD, but exchange the ethereal goth music for refined guitar interplay and a touch of psychedelia. I talked to Brendan Greaves, one of the label’s two curators, to explore that vision and see where its recent projects fit in.

“The label began as an investigation into under-recognized vernacular music of the Amer­ican South,” he explains. But the sound has expanded. Greaves cites “recognition of historical context” as a key component of the quintessential Paradise of Bach­elors record, and this is representative of the label’s philosophy. While I’d expected the vision to be gener­ic—I hear folk, country, and psych-rock influences in most of these records—Greaves demurs: “Genre is ultimately a fiction, a myth, a manufactured cultural construct like aesthetic ‘taste.’”

It’s a provocative stand, but Greaves is sincere in his faith that a “strong engagement with song forms, texts, and narratives” is what defines the music that Paradise of Bachelors releases. Greaves hedges, though, and allows that “an emphasis on organic instrumentation, especially guitars” is one stylistic piece common to the label’s records.

If anything, that might be an under­statement. The label thrives on guitars, especially the sound of multiple guitars twisting through each other. James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg’s Ambsace is the most pure realization of this—two virtuosos (and old friends) whose chemistry is apparent as they weave together their acoustic guitars. They flit around these songs nimbly, constructing a strong LP out of naught but twelve strings and the occasional piano. The two guitarists’ Midwestern roots belie the Southern focus of the label, but stylistically this is right in Paradise of Bachelors’ wheelhouse.

Actually, this geographic diversity— the label has also released records by Indiana’s great folklorist Elephant Micah, the LA slow-burners Gun Outfit, and an ex-Marine from Colorado named Kenny Knight—explains why the label draws inspiration not only from the South but also “its global sound dias­pora.” But if we are skeptical of Paradise of Bachelors’ Southern roots, the self-titled debut LP of Oxford, Mississippi’s Jake Xerxes Fussell will provide guidance. Fussell is nothing less than a scholar of Southern folk music, and this debut is the culmination of years of travel and study. He recruits William Tyler—one of the superstars of folk guitar today—to produce and accom­pany him, and powers through ten numbers with a world-weary yet impassioned voice. It’s the realization of the label’s goal, to digest the South’s folk music and produce something that belongs in that lineage. And if it sounds out of place in the soundscape of 2015, well, that’s kind of the point.

Perhaps the most exciting 2015 release from Paradise of Bachelors is Promised Land Sound’s sophomore LP For Use and Delight. These guys take the sounds of psych and stoner rock to a pastoral setting. They break down the rolling gui­tar licks of lead single “She Takes Me There” into a drugged-out psycho solo by the time the protagonist realizes that his girl really is gone. It’s one of the more haunting songs I’ve heard this year. When I observe that this band has made a huge leap from LP1 (2013’s self-titled) to LP2, Greaves notes, “there is no formula, but I think we forget sometimes that making good art requires a lot of work, like any other form of labor. And those guys work hard.”

Destroying the boundaries and impo­sitions of genre is one way that For Use and Delight fits into the Paradise of Bachelors mission. But the recent Gun Outfit record Dream All Over takes that even further. Their sound, Greaves explains, “recog­nizes hardcore punk and hardcore country as existing on the same spectrum of meaning.” It’s an album that defies explanation, but Greaves’ knotty description comes close. The opener “Gotta Wanna” uses sleepy, intertwining, reverberating guitars, like a psychedelic Ambsace or a sedated Bardo Pond. But “Came to Be” is more rustic, conjuring expansive landscapes with its country twangs. Even when the tempo picks up, as on “Pass On Through,” the band never sounds hurried. It must be something in Dylan Sharp’s lackadaisical drawl, which is central to Gun Outfit’s vibe. It’s what makes it so funny when he laments “Rock and roll is over” is done on the closer, “Only Ever Over.” Rock and roll is dead, but “We’re gonna have a fire before we go,” he sighs. That’s as good of a definition of the label as anything. To buy into that sentiment—that rock and roll is dead, long live rock and roll—is to buy into the sound of Paradise of Bachelors. If you’re ready to make that purchase, well, you’re in for a hell of a trip.

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