Dull Knife Songwriter Singles Series
by Kevin J. Elliott

Though Dull Knife has more or less flown completely under the radar, the little Texas upstart has spent the last year showing the rest of the underground how to run a label with consistency and grace, without grasping towards trends and flooding the market with ephemeral bullshit. Beyond that, there’s the thrown darts diversity that defines Dull Knife—everything from Rusted Shut to RTFO Bandwagon dots the roster—so the essence of the label is that there is no essence, no defining rhyme or reason why the suit(s) that calls the shots has a particular bent towards this record or that. Already they’ve promised 2010 will be blessed with a vinyl re-ish of Rehab and a lost Go-Betweens album. For now, though, let us concentrate on what Dull Knife has done lately, namely the stellar trio of 7-inches that have started what will hopefully remain a constant series of single songwriters distilling their talents on two sides.

Dan Melchior, “Terrible Shame” b/w “Ghost of a Flea Pt. 2”
This year has been nothing short of prolific for Mr. Reliable, now North Carolina native, Dan Melchior, and it seems only now (at least for myself) are we discovering the man’s genius. All of that skill and wit is contained in the crack-o-dawn slot blues of “Terrible Shame.” With his usually treated vocals and abnormally sharp accent, I’ve always aligned him as a right British madcap in league with Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers, sometimes even wackier, like Daevid Allen (of Gong), especially when it comes to his words. Here it’s “skyscrapers skyscraping” and “vampires sucking on a side of beef.” This isn’t exactly Canterbury meadow-meal; there’s a groggy strain of Americana running through the veins, giving the A-side a somewhat lethargic swoon, but woozy all the same. Melchior is always willing and able to place you completely under the spell of the “copious effects” that here tower over what likely started as a post-pub acoustic lament laboring to see the sunrise, hungover and nearly passed-out. On “Ghost of a Flea Pt. 2” he hews closer to his Stateside contemporaries, raging in a repetitive stomp ’n’ grind, though what sets him apart is his penchant and persuasion to shred. You’d like to think he could churn out a quality metal record should the chance arrive. The line would be long for that one. For now he’s seems in a comfortable skin as the singer-songwriter, with vinegar prose and plenty of late nights to whittle down his minor-keyed muse.

Andre Ethier, “Running of the Bulls” b/w “Gibraltar Rock”
I’ll have to admit to having no prior experience with Ethier, other than passing years back on the power of his bread and butter as ringleader of Toronto’s Deadly Snakes. After just one spin of this, I’m intrigued, though I’m fairly sure these songs speak nothing of his former pedigree other than the revivalist heft found on “Running of the Bulls,” which is no doubt aided by his Snakes sidemen (this being the only record in the series that adds players). Ethier exudes a confident Nick Cave-ish sneer by way of big band pomp and crusty luxury. In an era when this type of arrangement is derided for lo-fidelity, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear musicians using the studio as an arena to pull out all the melodic stops. There’s piano and woodwinds and rollicking percussion leading the procession, culminating in an upbeat dirge that is either referring to Biblical parable or a Catalonian travelogue. That narrative is injected into “Gibraltar Rock,” where Ethier adopts a talk-sing voice, mocking or worshipping the usual Dylan shuffle wordy songwriters tend to gravitate towards. Just listen to the way he enunciates “participation.” There is nothing dusty and backwoods surrounding the song, but a Northern gothic pervades nonetheless. These are two sides as solid as the encroaching sediment of which he sings. It’s a perfect answer to the question of where sturdy garage has-beens go for shelter.

Richard Youngs, “High Sun Energy” b/w “States of Time”
Perhaps the most recognizable of the three, Youngs has been straddling the line between avant-garde, musique-concrete, fragile minimalism, and straight folk for the past 20 years. His charm is that most times you’re never quite sure which side of the artist will peer out from the sound, and sometimes, like here, it’s a wild combination of every face he can present in his compositions. “High Sun Energy” is a perfect example, imagining what might happen were an Incredible String Band campfire awakening be interrupted by the Dead C upon the climax of a desert electrical storm. Youngs is a sculptor of sonics more than anything, and on this song, he molds feedback into a backdrop of menacing pan flutes, guitar static into white noise, and an undulating bassline into a wonky anchor for the trebling madness. It’s a moving experience, really, as if a folkie trying to conceal the voices in his head does so by dragging his torch song through gravel and glass. “States of Time” could have been a calming contrast, but instead is an acceleration of Youngs abstract A-side, pitting the same maximal drone and wind tunnel phase atop an obfuscated spoken word piece. I’m not exactly sure what to take from the words; it could just as easily be the Glasgow evening news as the soul bearing prose of Youngs’ middle-aged status. This is only one man making a mess and as the final notes ring, plucked in a sublime ascension from an empty hall, there’s a sense this has purpose, an artist’s intent that is mindlessly lost without repeated listens or first-hand translation.