John Bellows

l o n g

There’s something a bit warped about John Bellows’s songs that comes through loud and clear on the new l o n g EP, just released on Planted Tapes. The record (erm, tape) belies his history as an unhinged performer, trafficking instead in winding melody and dark humor with delayed punchlines. Bellows plays nearly all of the instruments himself, occasionally inviting in a guest cello line, crafting a rich, woodsy Americana that he bastardizes and turns towards his own whims. It’s kind of puzzling and kind of fucked up and altogether alluring. Bellows recorded l o n g on San Juan Island, Washington, adrift in the Salish Sea, closer to British Columbia than the mainland United States. That’s where this music comes from: at the edge, facing something foreign.

Bellows moved to Washington a half decade ago after a long stint in Chicago and a childhood in rural Kentucky. His 2005 debut Clean Your Clock careened through noisy outsider freak-folk (“Go to Hell”) and Beefheartian protopunk exercises (“(You Just Got) Motherfucked”), and he recorded his own set of fractured fairy tales on the kids-oriented Happy Hits. Elements of all these musical lives are present on l o n g, but they peek out unexpectedly around the corners. This is more polished work, both in craft and execution, largely acoustic and warmly laid down on analog tape. Opener “No Memory” plunks along unsteadily, never quite finding sure footing on the ominous bass line. Bellows’s voice ranges from a rich, sonorous baritone to a wheezing yelp, sometimes over the course of a single line. Sometimes it sounds smug. Sometimes defeated.

Standout (and side A closer) “Straightest Lines” speaks in its own fragmented, upsetting grammar, impenetrable as it is evocative. “Everything is made up of change your mind/I’ve changed my mind and/Everyone is wearing the same disguise.” The song lurches forward insistently, a wounded animal which musters strength for a final stand. “Everyone’s renumbered and arranged in lines/The straightest lines.” It’s dreadful and anxious and magnificent.

On the freewheelin’ side B, “Nothing More” echoes the lush fingerpicking and double-tracked harmonies of the earlier “Fool Like You,” and “Aimless Road” is a fairly straight (and successful) take on Appalachian folk. The lengthy “Make Believe” sees the ripples of domestic violence and budding queer sexuality, ebbing and swelling almost unbearably over nine minutes. “Your fingernails pinch at the needle in your pocket/Still ill conceived you scratch and bleed in your make believe.” It’s one of two tracks rounded out by full live instrumentation, and the small ensemble weaves a tense, foreboding web. Total darkness creeps over l o n g so slowly it’s almost hard to notice, but by the time epilogue “River’s Deceit” rolls around it’s pervasive and inescapable. l o n g is a haunting work, unwilling to give up its secrets easily even after repeated listening, but rewarding those who keep coming back to the well.

Nat Tracey-Miller

January 26th, 2016