Album: 615 To Fame

Artist: Steelism

Label: Single Lock

Release Date: September 16, 2014



The sound of pedal steel is about as close to a human voice as any instrument, with its iridescent variegation of tone, its plangent swoops and leaps, the shimmer of notes between the notes lending an aura of human vulnerability to its tones. A regular guitar, too, can stand in for voice, though it usually doesn’t. Steelism, a duo that partners pedal steel guitarist Spencer Cullum Jr. with Jeremy Fetzer on Telecaster, uses both of these instruments to take the main melodic line, embellishing singing guitars with lavish strings, drums (that’s Nashville mainstay Jon Radford) and bass (Michael Rinne).

Both Cullum and Fetzer came up through Nashville’s studio system, playing back up for Caitlin Rose, Wanda Jackson and Andrew Combs (who appears on this album). So it’s no surprise that the duo’s primary grounding is in country, whether it’s the blues-vamping, stripped down, road-house sort tipped to in “The Blind Beggar” or the melancholic twang that infuses “Tears of Isabella.” They don’t stick to that, however – even “Isabella” the most overtly country song on the disc is paced by a Latin cha cha rhythm. And a good plurality of the songs work a rusticated surfer vibe that feels like Booker T crossed with the Ventures. One tune is even #called# “The Landlocked Surfer,” which pretty closely defines its sound.

The first half of the album is lathered up in movie strings, so that most of the growl and bite gets subsumed in sounds that, to my ears at least, sound sentimental and overblown. Things get more interesting past the halfway mark, however, in outlier cuts like “Marfa Lights,” which sounds like a slightly twangified Neu! cut, or “Caught in a Pickle” which has the grit of a Jon Spencer and the sleek, Southern­-soul swagger of the Booker T. A cover of “The Spook” pays homage to Peter Drake of the legendary “talking steel guitar,” and it does seem to talk, squealing in indignation as it navigates some very human-sounding high notes.

The variety is entertaining, but it leaves you wondering exactly who these guys really are, and what they would sound like if they stripped off the veneer of smooth-as-silk production. Steelism, recorded in slick Nashville and soulful, gritty Muscle Shoals, can’t seem to decide whether it wants to soothe you or kick your ass. I’d prefer the latter, personally, but either way, these two should make up their minds.

DOWNLOAD: “Marfa Lights,” “Caught in a Pickle”


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