Four years ago, in his review of P.G. Six’s last album Slightly Sorry, Dusted’s Bill Meyer mentioned in passing that he’d seen the artist indulge his rock side, tossing aside his customary restraint and commun[ing] with his inner Crazy Horse.” With Starry Mind, Pat Gubler commits to tape these amplified, full-band endeavors, following fellow Tower Recordings vet Matt Valentine into distorted, Neil Young-ish country rock territories. Yet where Valentine gets lost in the drift, spinning out slouching, meandering, spiritually charged, electrically enhanced ragas, Gubler is ever the craftsman. His rock gardens are carefully tended, the buzz-saw drone of amp stacks hemmed in by flowery melodies, the twining ambivalence of tremolo trained up tidy lattices. Even in his most headlong, hurtling, chaos-embracing guitar breaks – the exhilarating coda to “Palace”, the droning, feedback-blurred duel with Tara Key in “Letter,” for instance – Gubler knows exactly where he left the song, and can make his way back there, neatly, easily, without a mark on him.
P.G. Six’s work has always juxtaposed the pretty regularity of folk melody with murkier textures of drone and improvisation. Here, in traditionally rooted songs like “January,” he performs the same trick, but with an added layer of psychedelic rock. The repetitive, circular guitar riff that lies at the basis of this song, running down in a cascade from F to low G then twisting up again toward high G, would sound misty, Pentangle-ish and firmly contained on an acoustic. Played loud and vibrant on electric, backed by drums and bass, it turns into something vaulting, questing, trippy, embedding a psychotropic blur into this Irish folk song. It sounds a bit like Oakley Hall, early on, or even The Sadies, in the way that multiple guitar tones split into rainbow colors. Later, on “Days Hang Heavy,” that psychedelic flavor recedes, as Gubler mouths soft, rueful lyrics over the whine of steel guitar (that’s Scott Hirsch of The Court and Spark) in a cut that is close to pure country folk. Then, psych is back with a vengeance for the eerie, slow-winding onset of “Crooked Way,” which sounds like a beautiful cross between Six Organs of Admittance and Om in its opening.
Gubler’s voice is, as usual, very listenable, soft and unforced on the slower songs, cracking with emotion on the more flamboyant ones and nearly always on key. He adapts surprisingly well to a louder instrumental backing band, pushing slightly against the ebb and flow of electrified instruments to allow the main melodic ideas to come through. He has a four-person band for most of this album: himself on guitar and occasional keyboards, Tono-Bungay vets Bob Bannister on a second guitar and Robert Dennis on drums, and Deborah Schwartz on bass and vox (she is a particularly good complement for Gubler on “Crooked Way”). The band seems very loose and comfortable with one another, the bass looping and circling around wavery double lines of guitar, the drums powerful, more reliable than showy.
The songs themselves, even when they are not traditional folk songs, share some of the time-worn general-ness of the folk genre. You do not, very often, feel that you are glimpsing directly into Gubler’s psyche. In fact, only on “Talk Me Down,” a loose-limbed country ramble, do you get a sense that the artist is talking directly to you, about an experience he personally has had and the impact it made on him. It’s odd. You’d think it would be more powerful, because of its specificity, but in reality, “Talk Me Down” is one of the least interesting songs on the disc.
But perhaps P.G. Six’s skill lies in reanimating age-old sentiments, polishing them a bit and underlining them with spiraling, transcendental arrangements. Even with the element of rock chaos added, it’s a craft he’s working, a well-defined exercise in making beauty out of traditional elements. Amping up doesn’t change that, but it does make it a bit more exciting.