The (Sedated) Health and Happiness Show
The packaging for If We Can’t Trust the Doctors…, the debut album by Detroit-based Blanche, includes an old time medicine ad for Blanche’s Nepenthe. The elixir claims to “induce forgetfulness of sorrow, dolor, ennui and wretchedness…for those afflicted with melancholia, fits and tempers, neurasthenia, or the vapors”. The music that Blanche makes could easily be the promotional soundtrack for the Nepenthe sales pitch, the accompaniment to its traveling medicine show.
“If we can’t trust the doctors / And our prayers have fallen flat / And the 14 pills she takes each day / Won’t hold the sickness back,” goes the opening verse of “Superstition”, one of many songs on If We Can’t Trust the Doctors… that catalogs the world’s many enablers of personal depression and defeat. It’s a collection of near-spooky gothic country-blues, dirges for sanity and laments for optimism wrapped in reverb, banjos, autoharp, pedal steel, and dank Poe atmospherics. Led X-ishly by the husband and wife duo of Dan and Tracee Mae Miller, Blanche plays old-timey Midwestern twang with one foot in authenticity and the other in well-versed satire.
If We Can’t Trust the Doctors… works best when the authenticity is so grotesquely weighted down that it emerges as a distorted parody. One such example is “So Long Cruel World”, a cavernous steamboat of a song that wraps its repentance up in inevitable death. “I want an old man priest and a stormy day / But don’t waste money on a casket, I don’t deserve a grave,” Dan Miller drawls with harrowed determination over the band’s steel-toed stomp. “Just cut out my organs, give ‘em to the barely living / Cook my body into ashes and pray my soul’s forgiven.” “So Long Cruel World” is the record’s best song and the most successful execution of Blanche’s sepia-toned formula. The sexually charged “Jack on Fire” and the crackling electricity in the doomed love of “Garbage Picker” both aspire to similar triumphs, but ultimately fail. They betray “So Long Cruel World”‘s perfect balance of snarl and smirk, favoring kitsch over poker-faced, elbow-prodded hellfire.
Things go more smoothly when Blanche dials back the raven-haired theatrics to favor the safer country lullabies of Harvest-era Neil Young. The fog-clearing ballad “Who’s to Say…”, the call-and-response pining in “Do You Trust Me?”, and the tepid waters of “Another Lost Summer”, while less inspired than the album’s more manic moments, are solid entries in the growing catalog of the country-folk revival. These songs may be overshadowed by the moments mentioned earlier—and are admittedly not as eerily bizarre—but they’re evidence of Blanche’s steeped education in all shades of Americana.
Blanche was formed after the Millers’s short-lived band Two-Star Tabernacle called it quits in the late ‘90s. (Another member of Two-Star Tabernacle—Jack White—would go on to find surprising success with the White Stripes, and later used members of Blanche as Loretta Lynn’s backing band for the critically acclaimed Van Lear Rose. White also plays a guitar solo on If We Can’t Trust the Doctors…’ “Who’s to Say…”.) If We Can’t Trust the Doctors… was released by Detroit label Cass Records in 2003, was nominated for the 2004 Shortlist Music Prize, and is now finding a new life through distribution with V2 Records. Blanche is not yet a touchstone of the alt-country community, but it shows major promise as a potential bearer of folk fringe oddities.