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Transmissionary Six - Transmissionary Six

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Artist: Transmissionary Six

Album: Transmissionary Six

Label: FILMguerrero

Review date: Jul. 2, 2002

The American Southwest has always been something of a vague musical muse. While Appalachia has forged its mystery by way of cluttered abundance – extensive, often interrelated song cycles featuring slight variations in narrative, character, and tone – the small handful of bands that have turned their focus to the dry dust of Arizona have tended to go the other way, culling mystery from the pregnant absence that exemplifies its spaces. Thus while the Harry Smith Anthology stays on ones’ tongue the full, musty taste of sweat and moonshine, a sweeping Rainer Ptacek guitar line or the tinkling bells of an Amor Belhom Duo record, on the other hand, leaves the listener with a lingering, near-invisible taste of metal at the back of the mouth, the faint crunch of sand between the molars.

Transmissionary Six are a Seattle-based duo, but by the first track of their self-titled debut on FILMguerrero, it feels completely logical that they would credit “the great state of Arizona” on the back of their sparse, folded-cardboard package. “Short Wave Hello” gently tosses the record wide open with a sparse, plodding guitar line that would tie in a footrace with Bedhead despite being evocative of spaces farther west even than that band’s home state of Texas. Beneath the slightly warbling guitar, occasional thumping bass drum and spaghetti-western bass guitar line, with a good pair of headphones you can almost hear the condensed night air. The bit of reverb is just enough to hint at an arena with a distant horizon line, and the fuzz that crackles towards the end of the instrumental is a fitting flourish, like the zig-zag of far-off CB radio chatter between truckers separated by sixty miles and a rest stop. The paradox inherent in music like this is that it can simultaneously communicate endless, arid spaces while retaining a feeling of comfortable warmth – not the heat of pounding jackhammers in Calexico’s “Hot Rail” but the warmth of a good blanket in winter. In Howe Gelb’s most gentle and reflective moments - “Available Space” on his Confluence record, for one - he’s realized this effect: that a gentle warble can function to both evoke expanse and communicate intimacy (or an understood need for it). More than anything, Transmissionary Six have made an album-length exploration of these two temperature ranges, revealing them to be something other than the obverse of each other that they might initially seem.

After “Short Wave Hello”, Terri Moeller (the Walkabouts) assumes the bulk of the vocal duties. Her voice, almost unearthly in its dusky calmness, trails the bass throughout most of the rest of the record’s thirty minutes, slowly unfolding elliptical fragments about dead crows and burnt-out streetlights. Paul Austin (the Willard Grant Conspiracy), responsible for the bulk of the instrumentation, works distant piano accents, banjo, and field recordings into the mix, which for the most part function unobtrusively. The sound remains pretty consistent until the fourth track, “Mothball”, where Austin puts his self-proclaimed “EQ Killer” to use, turning his guitar into a buzzing, cricket-like animal which rubs its legs together over the delicate tinkling of upper-octave piano. The effect is effortlessly cinematic, and in the organic, ambient manner with which it floats freely between speakers it resembles the Pilot Ships’ “Pilot Suicide Theory”, the sound that elevated David Gordon Green’s images in George Washington to dizzying heights. At their best, Transmissionary Six feels like a band scoring a film; Moeller’s vocals are fullest at their most hushed and muted moments, and the most affecting sounds occur when the songs are pared down to just two or three constituent elements, always separate, never bleeding into one another.

Lyrical missteps tend to be the record’s most distracting errors, mostly because the worst of them tend to be the ones most forcefully pushed, via amplification and repetition, into the mix. “My Paper Party Hat” opens in promising fashion, with an uncluttered folky guitar backing a fuzzy sing-song chant which seems to emit from some third grade recess-hour guru. “Nobody in this room is going to Heaven / Nobody in this room is going to hell,” the vocals begin, but the chorus slides disappointingly into the repetitive and mundane plea, “Give me back my paper party hat / Reward, no questions asked”. “My Paper Party Hat” nevertheless succeeds due to the rare enthusiasm of its percussion, but nothing in the instrumentation can save the dreadful “Submarine”, the record’s only obvious sore thumb. The almost oppressively corny lyric “Cotton candy pillows for your circus peanut dreams / One more shot for you my submarine” would be hardly noticeable if delivered once, but to base an entire song around it seems like something not even the most fervent Mercury Rev lyrical apologist could excuse.

All of which is merely to pick at slight blemishes in what is, overall, a very promising debut. In the oppressive humidity of July it might seem out of place to recommend such a warm record, but the Transmissionary Six debut is impressive for the elegant manner in which it pulls warmth out of arid heat.

By Nathan Hogan

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