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Flying solo (and duo)

Elijah Ocean and Dave Gutter get busy taking it slow
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  August 5, 2009

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Think about everything you know about Elijah Ocean and Dave Gutter: Ocean's work fronting the heavy rock trio Loverless, say, or his lead-guitar turn in the radio-rock foursome All the Real Girls; Gutter's piercing vocals out front of Rustic Overtones, or his white-hot bounce in the lead of Paranoid Social Club.

Now forget it. All of it.

If you're hoping for new explorations of previous themes in the respective new albums from Ocean and Gutter, you'll be as disappointed and befuddled as the crowds who came to see Gutter and company at Alive at 5 in Monument Square a couple weeks back and kept yelling, "Play some rock and rolllllll!"

No, there's no rock and roll to be found anywhere on either Ocean's The Wind or the Wine or Dave Gutter and Evan Casas's The Key to Adore. Both are inward-looking works, slow and grinding, melodramatic and lonesome. They are releases, it would seem, from the all-rock roles they normally play.

Of course, Gutter has done this before. From the opening guitar strum and subtle organ drone of "The Ballad of Ted Hemberger," it's hard not to recall the exercise in depression that was Axis I, the second half of Paranoid Social Club's second release. "You don't know how paranoid I can be," Gutter sings with a bit of a wink. "I know you say that it's you, but I'm beginning to think that it's me." Teammate Casas, who handled recording duties while Gutter took care of the writing, also provides harmony vocals and percussion that creates a gypsy feel.

Strangely enough, it was Ocean's time with Casas in the Ocean and Casas duo (Casas apparently content to be the second half of duos) where we last heard Ocean so acoustic and open, if never this stripped-down. On this solo release, recorded with Eric Bettencourt at his Shadow Shine Studios, he is absolutely naked much of the time, with a clean and eager voice, and often just a guitar. Maybe a little backing vocal or organ sneaks in from time to time.

The opening title track hints at the love songs to come: "Show me the moonshine/I'd hate to see it wasted/But I'd give up the moonshine/just to laugh at your amazement." Not quite as intricate as Micah Blue Smaldone, Ocean here mines similar old-time blues territory.

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These albums share a number of themes: humility, adoration, tranquility, resignation. Gutter lets more humor show through. His "Shorty (the Ballad of Ray)" is playful funk with a swagger, getting at Gutter's hip-hop roots with an ironic exploration of Lil' Wayne as unrequited lover: "I won't need an icy grill if I'm not smiling"; "This 14-carat chain is too heavy on my heart"; "She won't ride in my whip." The verse shares a melody line in the vocals from Ray LaMontagne's "Empty" (hence the parenthetic part of the title), but the song couldn't really be much different, an absurd companion to LaMontagne's honest depths of despair.

Ocean taps more into his inner Steven Stills, a '70s folk singer putting "A Fine Lady Like You" on a pillar: "My head is a wreck/You've stolen my breath/With those crescent moons/Decorating your neck." He finishes with simple retakes of the chorus, first heavier, then lighter, then a capella. But he can be as spiteful as he is adoring. "Burn in Hell" is just about what you'd think it would be, a dirge that feeds off the way Ocean can make the lilt in his voice as stabbing as any twist of the knife.

As with "Shorty," Gutter seems more interested in exploring characters — perhaps alternate versions of himself — than Ocean, who can be more heartbreakingly personal. Gutter sets himself and his characters up as outcasts, misfits, the sycophant who would kiss the queen's feet and the drunk in the corner of the dive bar you wish you hadn't entered. Even as he sings Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" (one of the few songs he wrote for Rick Rubin's American series), you suspect that Gutter sympathizes more with the man coming around than with the people who fear him.

What would it feel like to be the man who comes around, always feared, loathed, and despised?

Maybe something like the protagonist of Ocean's "Superpowers," a dark drone, with vocals doubled, before it lightens up toward a slow Donovan: "I, too, wish I would have bought you flowers/Instead of walking all those hours/Dreaming about having superpowers."

In the end, both albums are plays to base instincts, ways of getting things off the chest. Since both have outlets for the screaming and the sturm und drang, the urge to indulge a more morose instinct is understandable. These aren't albums for singing along and dancing, but both of these artists have plenty in their back catalogs for that. No, these are albums for idle contemplation, for porch-sitting and sky watching.

Either one will give you plenty to think about.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at

THE KEY TO ADORE, released by Dave Gutter and Evan Casas |

THE WIND OR THE WINE, released by Elijah Ocean |

Related: Elijah Ocean, Tony Smokes and the Ladykillers, Portland Music News: March 20, 2009, Samuel James at SPACE and the dilly on Dilly Dilly, More more >
  Topics: CD Reviews , Entertainment, Music, Johnny Cash,  More more >
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