Daughn Gibsonís All Hell was issued back in April by Matt Korvetteís White Denim label, but it only took a few short months for Korvetteís bosses at Sub Pop to call Josh Martin (his actual name) up to the big leagues. And no wonder: Itís easy to imagine the SP honchos in a board room with a bunch of line graphs on the walls, banking on Martin using his synthesizers and low-pitched croon to ride the crest of a wave set up by the likes of Nicolas Jaar and Dirty Beaches. All Hell is Martinís first LP as a frontman, though, and compared to those veterans it sees him about as unpolished and unfocused as youíd expect. Heís got a deep baritone on him that heís not quite able to reign in; there are moments on All Hell where he knocks it out of the park Hazlewood style, but there are other moments where he sounds like a dude across the bar doing Johnny Cash.
And yet, you kind of canít help but admire Martinís audacity. Itís interesting to hear what happens when a mere mortal uses modern one-man band technology to take a stab at a vocal style thatís usually the domain of all-time gods like his nom de plumeís namesake (and Chris Isaak). In spite of its humble origins, All Hell makes it clear that Martinís got an ear for arrangements that transcends its occasional clunkiness and the fact that the album can sometimes feel like a tour of the last 50 years of recognizable, off-kilter male vocalists. (In addition to those mentioned above, "Tiffany Lou" is the Arthur Russell track, and so on.) Itís easy to listen to All Hell and imagine Martinís efforts evolving into something pretty fantastic ó something this strange showing this much crossover promise is unusual. Remember how far out those first couple of Zola Jesus releases sounded?
All of Martinís vocal influences owe a similar debt to the crooners of first-generation rock Ďní roll, and itís that sort of muted, heart-on-its-sleeve atmosphere that elevates All Hell above the rehearsing-a-play tedium that it seems tailor-made to fall into. Itís easy to write it off as an attempt at melding the myth of the lone rock Ďní roll troubadour with that of the lone synthesizer weirdo, but All Hellís mixture of of confidence and fragile imperfection makes it more personal than anything by any of his contemporaries other than maybe Matthew Dear. Actually, it sounds a lot like the record I wanted this yearís Matthew Dear record to be: A pop-minded bum-out that balances an almost glam weariness with a carefully-posed toughness. Martin seems to grasp the fact that thereís something inherently ridiculous about combining synth bleakness with stark country-blues, but he does it on a level intuitive enough that All Hell never feels kitschy, just over-the-top. Which is good, because the last thing you want out of a record that swings for the fences is a half-assed job.