Each member of the haunted country-rock outfit Blanche looks like the sort of person whom the phrase “It’s always the quiet ones” was invented to describe. When they took the stage at Mercury Lounge a few sweltering Thursday nights ago, they did it in full baby-strangler garb. Frontman Dan John Miller, Autoharp strummer Little Jack Lawrence, and pedal-steel guitarist Feeny wore old-timey suits with outmoded wallpaper prints; bassist Tracee Mae Miller had on a frilly ankle-length dress that glowed white against her mussed, inky hair; drummer Lisa “Jaybird” Jannon wore a little necktie that made her look even more like Meg White than usual. Smiling was frowned upon, as was asking the sound guy to cut the music on the PA; Miller just stood behind his microphone until everyone felt awkward about talking, then introduced the band in a stentorian voice familiar to patients of school nurses: “Hellowe’reblanchefromdetroit.”
Still, they’re sly creeps: “Who’s to say that I’m unhappy ’cause I rarely smile,” the married Millers sang about halfway through the band’s set, which pulled mostly from their debut, If We Can’t Trust the Doctors . . . Beyond their ghostly melodies and extrava-gantly reverbed guitars—formal accomplishments that earned them guest spots playing pal Jack White’s arrangements on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose—that sense of humor is what distinguishes Blanche from any number of O Brother acolytes. They sang mournfully about garbage pickers and cracked mirrors, but dropped in flashes of sex and air, harmonizing about fucking each other to death and closing with a Cuban-rhythmed “Wayfaring Stranger.”
The Ditty Bops—two young women from L.A. and two grizzled backup dudes—had no prohibition against smiling: Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald gave their cutesy string band reproductions the adolescent enthusiasm this sort of music too often lacks. Instead of resisting museum piece antiquity by proving they can rock, they did it by singing in dreamy close harmony about pancakes and inviting a friend onstage to describe smuggling chorizo through U.S. customs. Refreshingly, Barrett let her outfit—pink hair, pink skirt, pink fingerless gloves—do the rocking.