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Wandering Stranger

(Fat Possum; US: 12 Oct 2004; UK: 12 Sep 2004)

Apart from some very occasional contributions by a percussionist and a violin player, Entrance is the one-man show of singer/guitarist Guy Blakeslee. Blakeslee plays an improbable brand of folk-blues sung in a lisping, histrionic manner somewhere between T.Rex and Gene Loves Jezebel. How you feel about his music depends a great deal on how you feel about the appropriation of black music by privileged whites with the means for amateur musicology. If you think it is hokey and inauthentic when 21st century urbanites sing about sleeping on pallets or hopping freight trains or “Sweet Home Chicago”, or when they thank the likes of Blind Wilie McTell and Robert Johnson in their liner notes, then you’ll want to avoid Wayfaring Stranger like it’s an eight-year-old with pink eye. But in Blakeslee’s defense, he’s clearly serious about his blues tribute, and—since there’s no way he can be making much of living doing it—you have to figure that his heart is in the right place. If his earnestness doesn’t make you squeamish, you might appreciate a trip down his desolation row.

On the whole, the recording techniques on the album are as basic as can be, with some studio patter appended to conjure an atmosphere of one-take roughness. The vocals routinely overpower the microphone set up to capture them, and this gives them a lost, antiquated sound, dry and hollow, seeming at once loud and far away. This suits his rootless-traveling-man lyrics to a tee. Wisely, Blakeslee doesn’t attempt to approximate the raw emotion of early blues by mimicking any of the great bluesmen’s vocal tics. Instead, he borrows from Bolan on “Honey in the Rock”, with its falsetto trills and unfettered vibrato. On “Train is Leaving” he adopts Robert Smith’s whimpering whininess. For the title track and “Lonesome Road” (a laconic 12-minute adaptation of Hank Williams’s “Rambin’ Man”), his caterwauling approaches that of Robert Plant. The incongruity between his singing and the basic blues-guitar figures undermine his more understated songs, like the acoustic “Darling” and “Rex’s Blues”. But on “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” his genre synthesis produces something more than the sum of its parts. Here, the lyrical anachronisms create a powerfully poignant feeling of being a stranger to your own time, as well as to the people you try to become close to.

Wandering Stranger‘s other tracks don’t reach similar peaks. “Please Be Careful in New Orleans” is an atonal, quasi-Eastern drone trip reminiscent of another one-man band with a mysterious moniker, Ben Chasny’s Six Organs of Admittance. “Happy Trails” is not the Country Western standby, but a quivery instrumental made up of layers of skittering guitar parts that sounds like a throwaway experiment in improvisation. During the longer songs, the album feels like an endurance test, perhaps to make the listener feel like he’s been on the same kind of tiring, endless journey that Blakeslee obsessively sings about. As dictated by his chosen genre, his songs have rudimentary, predictable changes, and they are played at quaalude-sluggish speeds, drawing them out to epic lengths.

Blues songs work best when the ritual repetition induces a sudden, surprising ambiguity in the deceptively simple lyrics—an unanticipated metaphoric power. This grows deeper and deeper as verses pile up and every word seems freighted with devastating power that, if given the right nuance, can send you falling free into an emotional abyss. But Blakeslee’s not in that league. His words aren’t evocative or ambiguous or multivalent enough to make you linger over them to begin with. His vocals aren’t so much nuanced as they are mannered. By the time he’s cycling through the same pattern for the 18th time, the words seem frustratingly and implausibly literal, you’re about sick of the melody, and you’re eager to move on like a wandering stranger yourself.

Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.

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