Dan Melchior layers wry, idiosyncratic blues folk with spooky auras. He gets ghostly, unsettling textures out of the most basic kind of drum machine rhythms (from a Kent K-85, hence the album title), a pedal board and perhaps some synthesizers. The first half of K-85 is mostly song-based, with the extraterrestrial touches relegated to the margins. But starting with about “Air Nippon” Melchior takes a left turn into the existentialist abstraction, raising the fundamental what-does-it-all-mean (if anything) question, with muffled, meandering, self-questioning experiments in instrumental sound.
The last few years have, maybe, taken the spring out of Melchior’s smart-assed prankster persona. His wife Letha continues to struggle with cancer (and its treatments), and the guy who wrote bleakly humorous songs like “Me and JG Ballard” and “The Cruel Pang of Beauty” has lately turned more bleak than funny. There are some sharp lines in lyrics-heavy songs like “Dirty Lies” and, especially, “Mockingbird,” but you get the sense that the clever turn, the biting aside, are not really Melchior’s main objective anymore. The songs are haunted by the proximity of loss, even the words fading into nothingness against a background hiss of static and fuzz.
So, even relatively straightforward songs, like “Mockingbird,” turn tipsy with uneasy, unspoken feeling. Here the strum of acoustic guitar is swallowed whole by distorted electric, a high sing-song-y riff is undermined by uncertainty. The song is a litany of all the things Melchior doesn’t know (“I don’t know what the Northern Lights are, I wouldn’t know how to roll a cigar, I don’t even know how to drive a car” for instance), and every verse ends with the phrase “all I know is I need you.” That’s pretty conventional, but what makes it less so is the sense that this center, this foundation, this one thing that’s certain, is slipping out of reach. It’s like a life preserver that’s slowly sinking.
As in the Backward Path, Melchior sidles up to issues like mortality and loss, never exactly hitting you over the head with them, but not letting you forget about them either. “Beings of Light” is perhaps the most direct attempt at the topic, a recorded interview about near death experiences overlaid with droning miasmas of keyboard, bass and drum machine. Yet everywhere on K-85, cloudy overtones, mysterious space sounds and the dream-like ticking of machine drums haul these compositions out of the day-to-day. Towards the close of the album these abstract elements take precedence in moody, atmospheric tracks like “Air Nippon,” “FFF” and “Gabor.” Melchior circles back to verse-chorus forms in the final track, “She’s a Creeper,” but even here, there’s a shadow falling over the melody, a woozy sense of the unknowable permeating even the fieriest passages of guitar solo-ing mayhem. I wouldn’t say that the music triumphs over darkness, but rather both co-exist in an uneasy, mutual truce.
DOWNLOAD: “She’s a Creeper” “Dirty Lies”