Blanche Blanche Blanche :: Wooden Ball (NNA Tapes) LP
Blanche Blanche Blanche :: Wooden Ball (NNA Tapes) LP
NNA055: Blanche Blanche Blanche “Wooden Ball” LP
Sarah Smith and Zach Phillips, better known as Blanche Blanche Blanche, live by the element of risk. This becomes clear upon listening to their latest full-length record “Wooden Ball”, where the unpredictability reaches palpable levels. These prolific young masters of harmony from Brattleboro, Vermont have spent the last couple years recording and releasing nearly 10 full-length records worth of brilliant and confounding musical quicksand. Describing it in words can be difficult, but make no mistake that these songs are both highly calculated, and drenched in paradox. Manic keyboard lines are pounded out with hyper chops, running circles around octopus basslines. Each progression is seemingly different from the last, showing a simultaneous reverence and destruction of the tonal study. Percussion pads are guided by ruthless polyphony at an intense, hummingbird-paced tempo, with lines and melodies colliding at every junction, clashing and crashing, like the most fluid and elegant car wreck you’ve never seen. The cutting, topical lyrics and deadpan, bare-bones vocal delivery are wholly original, while undoubtedly fueled by the eternal flame of the “punk” spirit and DIY ethics. Most importantly, at the heart of the all the technicality, lies the warmth of the human element. “Wooden Ball”, like most BBB, was lovingly recorded to four-track tape, so you can tangibly feel the intention of these spirited musicians. This taps into what seems to be an emerging Vermont-style, evident in other locals artists like Ryan Power, Son Of Salami, Chris Weisman, or Happy Jawbone Family Band – raw, no-rules songwriting, unattached to genre or principal. The revenge of the “small town” feel, where rock and roll is in the eye of the beholder. There must be something in the syrup…
Mastered and cut by Lupo at Dubplates & Mastering, Berlin.
Confused and confounding, “Wooden Ball” may fall under the broad genre of new wave, but the duo behind Blanche Blanche Blanche seem just as keen on disfiguring and undermining the style. The album was clearly recorded on a shoestring budget and a distinct outsider pop mentality pervades, yet it’s difficult denying how immediately catchy such gems as the soulful “I Can Pay” and five minute “Looks Don’t Run” are. Blanche Blanche Blanche, comprised of Sarah Smith and Zach Phillips, have recorded about 10 full-length albums in the past few years, but their enthusiasm and ardent desire to create music still shines through. Though NNA Tapes made a name for themselves by issuing albums by experimentalists like Caboladies and Mike Shiflet, in the last year they’ve turned a beguiling corner with pop-leaning releases by Ryan Power and Blanche Blanche Blanche. – Ryan Potts, Experimedia
Sarah Smith and Zach Phillips, the Vermont-based duo who make up Blanche Blanche Blanche, like to work in miniature. On Wooden Ball, the latest in a rapid-fire series of releases from the pair, only five of the 16 tracks make it over the two-minute mark. Their insistence on recording to four-track tape adds to the small feeling, lending a compressed intimacy to their bursts of all-thumbs pop. A cliche (and a truth) often uttered about four-track recordings is that you "feel like you're in the room there with them," which is something often ascribed to, say, Lou Barlow's work under his Sentridoh alias. It's not something shared by Blanche Blanche Blanche, who use the muffled textures to make themselves sound anesthetized from the world, lost somewhere in a land of their own creation. Wooden Ball ups that feeling tenfold from last year's Wink With Both Eyes, largely due to the greater complexity of Smith and Phillips' creations.
If Wink was a little too enchanted with the cheap-speed world Ariel Pink created on his earliest releases, Wooden Ball has taken that template and tied a few more knots in it. The outcome has deposited Blanche Blanche Blanche somewhere close to the Ohio punk and New Wave scene that bloomed in the late 1970s, with specific cues taken from Devo's first couple of albums. There's a strong sense of the robo-rock approach of Mark Mothersbaugh's band, a great rush of synthesized movement that's impeccably ordered, yet splinters off at angles you rarely see coming around the bend. Like Devo, it's manic at first, even difficult to process. Smith and Phillips clearly get a kick out of setting up songs that come close to wilting under their own good ideas. "TED Talks" is their best example of this to date, drawing vital energy from the deranged motion of the track, which is perfectly balanced by Smith's dispassionate vocal.
There's a confidence here that was only hinted at on Wink. Smith's singing often slows to a spoken-word pace, sometimes strains at the seams, and is regularly furnished with a brash kind of cool. It's like a cross between Ann Magnuson's work in Bongwater and Anna Waronker's supremely disengaged delivery in That Dog. Blanche Blanche Blanche's greatest material resembles an all-out cage match between the instrumentation and the vocals, full of roaming, mechanised basslines ("Time to Remember", "Cow"); wild machine noise lost in an upsurge of distortion ("Join the Creative Class"); and berserk 21st century vaudeville ("Looks Don't Run"). There's nothing that resembles relatively straight songs like "That's Siberia" and "Appetite" from Wink, and this record is better for it. Madness clearly suits them far better than sanity.
One weakness is Smith and Phillips' tendency to flick through styles and present gone-wrong versions of them; "The One I'll Call" attempts warped reggae, "The Kind Dry Stream" is a demented piano ballad. Those tracks splice up the mood of the record, but they don't need to go there, especially now they've found a footing that's close to being their own. They haven't quite shed all the Ariel Pinkisms either, but they're almost gone, with that drowsy kind of melancholy increasingly at odds with everything else going on when it emerges. Whimsy can often be so hard to get right in music, but Wooden Ball becomes effortlessly palatable over time in the same way as odd releases like Renaldo & the Loaf's Songs for Swinging Larvae. Despite the constant barrage of music, there's a feeling that the people behind Blanche Blanche Blanche have put a lot of care into this work, striving hard to dislodge their brains from the well-travelled path.
Blanche Blanche Blanche recorded their 2012 breakout, Wink With Both Eyes, on the same Yamaha MT8X eight-track that Ariel Pink used to record the first Haunted Graffiti album. Their music sounds almost nothing alike, but their songs share the kind of deliberate overwroughtness that may be the 2000s equivalent of the “too many notes” critique that Emperor Joseph II levels against Mozart in the movie Amadeus. With an onslaught of melodies, counter-melodies, steam-of-consciousness-style, psycho-confessional musings and random time and key changes, the music of Vermont’s Zach Phillips and Sarah Smith is the sort that is best listened to “sideways”—you can’t hold onto any of its elements for very long, so you quit trying to and start enjoying it for its babbling flow, as one might enjoy listening to the sounds of different stations wafting in and out over a spotty radio connection. And like Pink’s early material, Blanche Blanche Blanche’s sounds like it’d be nearly impossible to play live, but where the former “matured” in the direction of a simpler, more overtly hummable aesthetic, these guys just kind of polished up their production values.
Wooden Ball, which is out today on NNA tapes, mostly forgoes the scuffy sonics and nursery school keyboards of its predecessor in favor of an almost snidely “contemporary” palette of digital synths and drum patterns. The irony is that rather than making their effortlessly changing, abruptly ending, mini-prog epics easier on the ears, the higher resolution just makes everything sound even more insane.
It's a Pop album rather experimental but also catchy, a little bit crazy but full of enthusiasm. It is very different from the previous album, it is more experimental but also more dynamic and with a production with more relief, that makes it catchier. Although the experimental aspect is very marked there is also a mattering effort to seduce the listener, bits of cute melodies, enthusiasm in the singing, fast rhythms, uncommon attractive tones, and more. If there is an undeniable work on sounds, the striking points are the over-subtle structures of the tracks and the complexity of the compositions which constantly provoke the listener. The vocal are also complex and highly varied but they are a landmark in the maelstrom of the music.
There are some links with Fiery Furnaces. It's very different from what made Fiery Furnaces, however for the female singer it's very probably a major influence on this album and some pieces are sung in the style of what was doing the female singer of Fiery Furnaces in their first albums. Another link are the tracks with multiple very different phases chained rather brutally, and the links between those phases aren't easy to pinpoint. It's not an easy album but if you can enter in its complexity it is fascinating and very catchy. It's a bit Captain Beefheart making some pop.
To support the artists you can buy the vinyl LP or the digital at NNA Tapes label. And you canpreview it here but at a quality only a bit better than standard streaming, and be fair, if you like dig it, support the artists and don't forget buy the album.