Gabriel Sullivan – By the Dirt

January 01, 1970



One day Gabriel gonna blow his horn, and when he does we can
all pretty much kiss our asses goodbye ‘cos Judgment Day will have arrived.
Meanwhile, though, there’s newcomer Gabriel Sullivan, and while he’s definitely no angel – with a brimstone-strafed throat positioned halfway between Tom
Waits and Nick Cave, he sounds downright purgatorial in places – he still summons
his share of sonic heaven.


Sullivan’s a native of Tucson
and here, for his inaugural longplayer, he taps some of Tucson’s top talent; in addition to the
members of Sullivan’s band, Nick Luca, Mike Hebert, Andrew Collberg, Brittany
Dawn and Calexico’s Joey Burns appear. Luca also engineered, while Craig
Schumacher handled mixing duties, and the record was cut at the venerable
Wavelab Studios, so By the Dirt is as
pure a product of the Old Pueblo – in all its parched, windswept, desert noir beauty – as it gets. Yet the record’s
not a collection of textbook twang or gratuitous nods to border culture;
rather, it’s an eclectic, engaging set that touches on a wealth of Americana subgenres, from
blues and gospel to country and rock ‘n’ roll, much like the city itself is a
study in shifting social strata and varying indigenous mores.


That Waits influence, certainly, will be the first thing
reviewers zero in on. Right from the get-go, with opening track “God’s Filling
Station,” Sullivan’s shuddering, gravelly voice conjures images of St. Tom, and
with a loping musical backdrop that features low, grinding bass, off-kilter
banjo pluckings, a blaring harp and clattering, auto-parts percussion, it’s
impossible not to think of some of Waits’ latterday excursions into dissonance.
(The Howlin’ Wolf-Captain Beefheart axis also comes to mind when young Sullivan
sings in that improbable-for-his-age nicotine bawl; listeners from the East
Coast may hear echoes of Appalachian roots-terror Malcolm Holcombe as well.)
And Sullivan’s not loathe to revisit Waits territory later in the album,
either: “Sewer Cats,” featuring Burns on upright bass, cello and accordion and Vicki
Brown on violin, finds Sullivan in bard-at-the-piano mode, the tune’s sweet,
gospellish arrangement and Tucson-specific images of monsoons, summer heat,
homeless souls and Santa Rita Street additionally conveying a songwriting
agility that’s of the proverbial wise-beyond-the-years quality.


Mule Variations Redux this ain’t, however. Over the course of By
the Dirt
‘s bakers-dozen tunes one encounters twisted show tunes (“By the
Dirt,” a great drinking ditty powered by Marco Rosano’s clarinet); hard-twangin’/slide
guit-fueled devil’s music (“How to Treat a Man,” which marries Chuck Berry’s
“Route 66” to Bob Dylan’s “Crash On the Levee”); mournful country-folk (“House
Built On Love,” featuring honey-throated Brittany Dawn playing Emmylou to
Sullivan’s Gram, or perhaps more accurately the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins
to Sullivan’s John Prine); and filthy, noirish blooze (“Junkman’s Blues,” a Bad
Seedsian epic that PJ Harvey ought to tackle).


Additionally, a pair of unexpected covers helps provide a
Southwestern emotional center for the album. “The Gardens,” by Chris Gaffney,
is musically soothing thanks to lap steel and violin, although its lyrics about
living a purgatorial (there’s that word again) existence make it one of the
late Gaffney’s more unsettling compositions, and Sullivan navigates its lyrics
with sensitivity and gravitas. And Rainer Ptacek, the iconic Arizona slide
guitarist and Giant Sand compadre who, like Gaffney, passed away far too early,
has his epic “Life Is Fine” turned into a slice of sonic cinema by the Sullivan
band, Connor Gallagher’s echoey, clanging peals of slide in particular chasing some
hoodoo down as Sullivan, in a haunted voice, chronicles a life that’s become
anything but fine. “I thought about
my baby/ So I jumped in, and I sank,” moans Sullivan’s desperate, suicidal
protagonist, only to come up seconds later, gasping, “Oh, I’ll be doggone if
you’re ever gonna see me die.”


The bloody-minded human resolve informing the Ptacek song
that Sullivan so expertly probes, combined with the sheer viscerality of By the Dirt as a whole, makes this one hell of a listening experience. That the
album is but a debut effort is all the more astonishing. This Gabriel, he’s blowing
his horn right now. Best get yourself some religion, sinners.


Standout Tracks: “How
to Treat a Man,” “Life Is Hard,” “God’s Filling Station” FRED MILLS




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