An Ode to the American West
Carrie Keith wants to be able to hear vocals. She seems sick of hardcore’s vibe — an interesting notion when considering that’s the music her band, Gun Outfit, grew up listening to and eventually played with each other. However, as Gun Outfit has developed over the course of four and a half pretty good albums, their current sound couldn’t be any further removed from the Cascade-driven, hardcore-inspired music of their past. In fact, the group wants their music to be listened to while driving, Keith told The Fader when 2015’s Dream All Over was released. And hardcore, supposedly, isn’t very good driving music.
Long gone are the punk and hardcore sounds of other Olympia bands like Sleater-Kinney and Unwound. Here are the days of sun, cobalt-blue skies and endless summer. Goodbye, moist Pacific Northwest underground punk scene; hello, to the sunny hills and trippy rock formations of the Southern California desert.
Now, Gun Outfit, has released their fifth full-length, Out of Range, and following their move from Olympia, Washington to Los Angeles, the band appears settled in a geographic and sonic sweet spot. It’s their most exploratory album to date, putting geography is at the center of sound, of message, and of temporality.
“Geography” is not to be taken lightly here. Out of Range is a geographic soundtrack for the American West. With odes to long stretches of highway, Joshua Tree, road trips, the ocean, and the 101 freeway which bisects Downtown LA, the band looks on their new city with, at best, rose-tinted lenses. The album is exactly what you’d expect from a group accustomed to the cold and damp of the Pacific Northwest, who have now found themselves surrounded by overt affluence, pomp, and layered sunshine. Gun Outfit’s music is mercurial in nature, hard to pin down. It can be heavy and soft at the same time. It’s an expansive travel playlist, and can concurrently oscillate between country, punk, blues, and surf rock.
Several tracks, “Ontological Intercourse” and “Cybele” in particular, involve strong literary references such as the Ancient Greek story of Orpheus; heralded as the greatest musician to have ever lived whose one true love is killed by a viper and lost in the Underworld. This story, and other Ancient Greek tragedies, are everywhere on this record, mostly in the secluded context of our doomed and repeatable existence. Band members Dylan Sharp and Carrie Keith begin to embody this musical outlook, and Los Angeles and the West become landscapes for Underworld vibes. It’s as if Gun Outfit themselves are Orpheus wandering around past the river Styx.
The lyrics, although semi-indecipherable, offer a poetic retelling of the Orphic myth. On the aforementioned “Ontological Intercourse,” (perhaps one of the most memorable opening song titles in recent memory), Sharp sings: “Orpheus played ballads for the dead, til they buried his singing head / cos he worshipped the sun instead / of the God of epiphany / the reason for every / in the cups again / and he rode the evil’s wing to seduce the Heaven’s king / now he’s one of the many moons which I see.” This verse in particular is so dense and rambling in lyrical content; yet, it gets shelved between choruses and anchored to pretty eloquent, “Sultans of Swing” riffs. One might not even notice how deep the song is if you’re not tuned in enough.
On “Cybele,”the hollowed-out duet between Keith and Sharp (and perhaps an accompanying track to “Ontological Intercourse”), a connection is drawn between Mother Earth, music, and our terrestrial existence. The imagery doesn’t get better than the lines, “I have eaten from Cybele’s tambourine / I have drunk of the symbol that is hanging from the pine tree / I have felt her close and heard her on the breeze / I have seen her likeness in marble and poetry.”
The content of these lyrics does raise an important issue: each song is almost too dense, to the extent that the words can be somewhat lost on the listener. On first or second play the record sounds like an easy-listen, but upon further analysis each song presents contradictions: they feature sonic elements of weightlessness, yet each lyric is denser than osmium; the combined low-and-high tessitura of Sharp and Keith offer a distinct textural and tonal quality, and for all the brilliant lyrics, this album would be just as good if merely instrumental.
“The 101” represents a troubadour’s dire vision of Los Angeles in which the city is seen as a kind of Underworld. Over a plucking banjo and a waltzing tempo, Carrie Keith reflects on LA’s perceived lawlessness. “California’s a legend, what can I say,” she sings. “On the brink of destruction on each given day. From the vistas of chaos, perspective’s unique / in the age of the world, you look down at your feet.” The rhythm of this song is slightly different than those before it, but it still contains a similar roaming-the-Underworld kind of feel. “Sally Rose” is heavier, but only because it hearkens back to earlier Gun Outfit songs. The tune thumps along with plenty of background fuzz and offers a desert-fueled DIY video.
Out of Range is a wiggly, pleasant listen, if only for it’s musicality and softness. With a little more attentive listening, the album becomes greater than the sum of all its parts. Out of Range sounds warmer, feels more thought-out, and reflects a deeper connection with the outside world than on any of Gun Outfit’s previous records. It beckons the open road, nodding to a more reserved Western sound previously unheard in Gun Outfit’s work — even if you can’t quite make out the vocals.