Madison, Wisconsin’s Blake Thomas and Robby Schiller are as well known for their drunken escapades (like nearly drowning together after plummeting through the ice into Lake Monona, wherein Otis Redding perished) as their music. Their latest albums—Schiller’s second with his group Blueheels, and Thomas’s fourth solo effort—should change all that.
The first thing that gets you about Blueheels is Schiller’s weirdly twangy, unrepentantly nasal singing. Who’d have dreamed that the Dust Bowl extended as far north as Neenah, Wisconsin? I had to go back all the way to the opening bars of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” to remember a voice stopping me in my tracks so effectively. Some of the fervently parochial locals have heard Blueheels as the second coming of the Jayhawks, but on Lessons in Sunday Driving, they commonly sound a lot more like the Clash with chops and dynamics, the latter most evident on “Stupid Little Smile,” which goes from silence to gale-force fury in a heartbeat.Recordings withhold the pleasure of watching the band’s ursine, Che Guevara–ish lead guitarist Bricco exude nearly Springsteenian delight at being onstage with an electric guitar in hand, but his blurry blues riffing in “Keep Your Mouth Shut” and scorching flurries of sixteenth-note triplets in “Evelyn Song” nearly compensate. And Schiller himself shines as a songwriter when persuaded to stop playing the lovable-loser card: Sunday Driving‘s best songs, like “Trampled Rose” and fuzzy declaration of faith “The Lion and the Lamb,” recall the Band, sounding less composed than unearthed; without the distortion on Bricco’s guitar, and adorned by the odd pop and crackle, these tracks could’ve been recorded anytime since the invention of the phonograph. Thomas’s “I Don’t Want Your Heart, I Want Your Liver,” a highlight of his new Flatlands, is a glorious addition to the canon of wry country odes to alcoholism. But the world’s world-weariest 25-year-old never hits his stride more emphatically than when immobilized by despair, as on “Please Cash This Check for Me”: Throwing out the rhyme and meter rulebooks, he recalls with heartbreaking vividness a real-life moment of abject desperation. Sung with resonant soulfulness, the evocatively melancholy title track ought to become the Midwest’s national anthem. Being Wisconsinites, both Thomas and Schiller are maddeningly resigned to entertaining fellow dumpster-divers on the same old local beer-and-pizza circuit (in Blueheels’ case) and giving fingerpicking lessons while waiting for the Big Time to come looking for him (in Thomas’s), but these two heartland albums will make you proud to be American in this last woeful summer of Bush & Cheney.