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On their most refined and ruefully elegant album, Gun Outfit perfect their incandescent sonic signature: a dusky, canyon-cult blues fueled by melodic dual-guitar weaving and seductive male/female incantations at zero hour. It’s the nocturnal sound of desert-damaged L.A. burnout, a soured American surrealism in country-punk creole: white line fever, paint fume flashbacks, a stranger wading out alone into the black surf.
“Inflammable desires dampened by day under the cold water of consciousness are ignited that night by the libertarian matches of sleep, and burst forth in showers of shimmering incandescence. These imaginary displays provide a temporary relief.”
– Kenneth Anger, Fireworks
Opening credits. One weekend in 1947, teenaged filmmaker, music video forefather, fledgling occultist, and eventual Mick Jagger collaborator Kenneth Anger shoots a short film of homoerotic surrealism called Fireworks in his parents’ empty house in Beverly Hills. The stated intention is to capture “the explosive pyrotechnics of a dream,” and it does so with ghostly brutality, distilling a potent, symbolically charged amalgam of desire, dread, violence, and the tentative trappings of magick that would occupy Anger (an Aleister Crowley acolyte) in later years.
Almost seventy years later, Dream All Over, the fourth full-length album by the cinematically-minded rock and roll band Gun Outfit—and their first since moving from Olympia, Washington to Los Angeles—describes a comparable flickering and dimming of dreams, that moment when the lights go up, and the “temporary relief” of sleep’s “imaginary displays” dissolves into stark, deadening lucidity. The songs are suffused with a slyly cynical hangover/hangman’s humor that evokes, from the perspective of “a stranger / getting stranger still,” the ubiquitous disorientation and dislocation of Los Angeles and its simulacrum kingdom of crawling pictures: “I looked familiar in a foreign land / I couldn’t speak, but I could understand / From another life I rode / Into a desert of my own / And when I put my blanket down / I’m going to dream all over” (“Legends of My Own”).
The California obliquely mapped by Gun Outfit herein bears little resemblance to Tinseltown fantasies, except insofar as the incantatory dialogues of singers Carrie Keith (guitar, vocals, slide) and Dylan Sharp (guitar, vocals, banjo, balalaika) throw off a muted, wary carnal heat, the lingering afterimage of spent desire. (“Isn’t enchantment what we like?” asks the song “In Orbit,” dubiously.) Instead the inscape drawn through Dream All Over navigates the dark side of the moon—the Hollywood Babylon L.A. of Kenneth Anger and David Lynch, Father Yod and Charlie Manson, muscle cars and drought—as reflected upon a pair of tired human hearts. As Dylan sings in “Only Ever Over,” “Out here on the West coast where the ocean eats the sun / We’ve known for a long time the end’s already come.”
The band members, all of whom have made or worked on their own and others’ low-budget, homebrew art films in various capacities, draw from the syntax and systems of cinema, in two senses: the songs invoke imagistic memories and unfold like dreams unremembered upon waking, but they also rely on staunchly collaborative team processes. The unmistakable rhythm section of Daniel Swire (drums, percussion) and Adam Payne (bass, also of Residual Echoes) fuel Dylan and Carrie’s spacious, enmeshed guitar work with a corporeal throb, and all decisions are democratically decided. Friend and mentor Henry Barnes (Amps for Christ/Man Is the Bastard) plays three different homemade electric sitars on the record. Facundo Bermudez (Ty Segall, No Age, King Tuff) engineered and co-produced.
Although reared in the realm of post-punk aesthetics, these days Gun Outfit bears as much sonic kinship to the likes of Lee Hazlewood or Blaze Foley as they do to Sonic Youth or the Meat Puppets. There is an unspoken understanding throughout their recordings, but pointedly so on Dream All Over, that punk rock is folk music, certainly as much as honky-tonk belongs to the American folk tradition. But the band somehow communicates this kinship by barely acknowledging the formal tropes of either genre. It’s a compellingly elusive aesthetic strategy articulated in the withering “Gotta Wanna”: “I wanna squirm around / I’m a wild primate / Can’t never make no art / When my clothing chafes.”
There are many such moments on Dream All Over, deflating lyrical reversals that frame these plainspoken riddles with devastating regret and resignation, in the manner of all great country songs. The existential beach-blanket bingo ritual of “Came to Be” (“futility,” we learn, is “the reason for the partying”) ends with a scathingly dismissive indictment: “And that’s what I know of Paradise.” “Worldly Way” finishes with a desolate aphorism: “Oh world, what knowledge do you teach? / To grow a tail and chase it / Or sit awhile in grief.” The album begins with a cautious, nodding admission of our powerlessness to resist the dominion “Of the often noticed clock / And its fascist frame.” But it ends with a glimmer of prehistoric hope, a “temporary relief”: “So cup a little coal / Try to make it glow / We’re going to have a fire before we go.” End credits.
+ RIYL Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Steve Gunn, Lee Hazlewood, Blaze Foley, Amps for Christ, Ty Segall, desert noir
+ Available on virgin vinyl as an LP, with heavy-duty reverse board matte jacket, as well as on gatefold matte CD and digital formats.
+ Vinyl edition includes digital download coupon.