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Josh Martin is not a cowboy.
His musical persona Daughn Gibson may be conjured from the spirits of lonesome bars and desolate highways, but Martin is and always will be from small town Pennsylvania.
For two albums, Martin has attempted to cram his deep baritone into a cowpoke’s lazy drawl, only for the results to sound more like an impersonation than an authentic interpretation.
On All Hell (White Denim, 2012) his affected accent was a minor detail against a backdrop of thrift store found record samples and spare songwriting. The debut still sounds like an alternative country album like no other, with standouts like “Tiffany Lou” and “Ray” smearing the natural noise of a honky tonk into a blessed beat driven bliss.
Gibson’s second album, Me Moan (Sub Pop 2013) abandoned the sample soup of his debut for a live band made up from members of Baroness and Brokeback. What could’ve been a positive attempt at more traditional country was ruined by overbearing vocal performances and atonal composition choices.
Carnation (Sub Pop 2015) finds Gibson walking boldly out of the swinging doors of the saloon and into the neon new wave of the city.
It’s a move that pays off well. Gibson has producer Randall Dunn (Sunn O)))) and his band (Stevie Moore of Earth fame, return player Jim Elkington) to thank for making Carnation sound so lush.
Opener “Bled To Death” begins with spare piano and a swirling vocal sample before Gibson steals the show with a restrained and arresting performance against buzzing synths.
It’s the equivalent of watching a gushing waterfall feed a dry dessert. Gibson no longer burrs and howls; he croons and sighs.
The record relies heavily on mood, which the singer is able to shift from gracefully. Gibson sounds languid and lustful on “Heaven You Better Come In,” only to later capture the cracked cadence of a mental patient on “Daddy I Cut My Hair.”
However, as wonderful as Carnation can be to listen to, Gibson’s stories are often unscrupulous shadows in the bright glow of his new band. The Sub Pop press release tells that “A Rope Ain’t Enough” concerns a man failing to grasp with masculine expectations and “It Wants Everything” is about a drunk “jester of circumstance.”
It’s a shame those details are submerged in lyrics the singer’s newly relaxed delivery can’t bring to the surface.
The swinging bombast behind the story of Sgt. Love on the Highway of Death in “Shine of the Night” certainly sounds compelling. However, the details between Love’s introduction and the fact that Gibson screams into his sheets when the character is on base are lost in the sinking sands of a mush mouthed chorus.
Ultimately, Carnation is a transitional record for Gibson. It doesn’t blossom his talent like the album cover suggests, but its sharp colors certainly dazzle.
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