Earth is probably the only band in rock music that can go “back to its roots” while growing and blazing new musical trails at the same time. Dylan Carlson could have easily gone the way of the Hendrix and his friend Cobain, but instead he’s become a low-key redemptive story, rediscovering and reinventing pure Americana guitar music while staying fresh and alive. No one else can feel so ancient and so young in every note, and perhaps no one else deserves the distinction.
Full Upon Her Burning Lips is a humble, plaintive triumph of a record. Like all great philosophers and vagabonds, Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies recognise that art can flourish within tight constraints. Determined to evolve without frills or fanfare, Carlson took over bass duties and limited his signature Telecaster twang to the bare essential effects, allowing Davies’ workhorse drumming to command a sonic terrain that previous albums filled with pianos, singers, or slide guitars. It’s easily their most stripped-down record since 1996’s Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, but it’s the most expressive and poignant since The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull from 2008.
The basic, dulcet pentatonics on “Exaltation of Larks,” for example, convey just that feeling—exaltation. Presumably of larks. Each looping, identical riff varies ever so slightly under Carlson’s tender touch, held aloft by waves of reverb and Davies’ mournful cymbals. One feels assured that larks have rarely been so exalted before, if at all.
Earth has developed a sound so straightforward and earnest one could hardly believe something this genuine can exist in 2019. Constant reminders came before every song at a recent performance at The Chapel in San Francisco, one of many dates on their 10th anniversary tour for Bees in which they played every song from the now-classic album. After the band concluded the previous song perfectly on a dime, Carlson approached the microphone and introduced the following song by its title—sometimes with a short anecdote about the song’s inspiration at Joshua Tree National Park, but more often the title alone. That he likely did this for every stop on the tour conveys a remarkable reverence for his own craft, the kind of esteem a chef holds for a homemade stew, a poet for plums in the icebox.
Dedicated fans may hear some similarity between “The Color of Poison” and Bees classic “Engine of Ruin,” but the addition of a sinister boogie shuffle stutters and hesitates before pummelling on its way. It’s the sheer fun and indulgence you’d expect from a bong-laden bender of a barroom Black Sabbath cover band, but with a professional respect for the craft that is nearly impossible to balance. After all, how could professionals ever have fun?
What casual listeners and die-hard followers alike can appreciate is that each song tells a story—a subtle, ambiguous story without the spaghetti-western sweeps of previous albums, but still with the vigour of born storytellers. “She Rides an Air of Malevolence,” for example, begs many questions – who the hell is she, and whence this air? – but it doesn’t leave the listener wanting: the careful, intentional presentation of the devil’s note tells you enough to allow your imagination to fill in the rest, for nearly 12 minutes of fantastical songcraft.
We can always count on Earth to cherish listeners enough to let us have fun, but they never pander to our lizard-brain boorishness. “The Mandrake’s Hymn” is dramatic enough to indeed sound like a medieval liturgy, but it doesn’t stoop to any corny lows to emphasise the spooky thematics. “Maiden’s Catafalque” meanders in a quiet, noir spy-flick vibe, but cuts off before the mind can conjure up too much intrigue. Rock ‘n’ roll may derive most of its fun from sheer excess, but it’s a rare treat to indulge in such small doses.
Barebones guitar rock is all you’re given, but you get so much more out of it. New music from Earth is like wandering into a thrift store in the desolate desert, and stumbling upon a pair of cowboy boots that will last you a lifetime. Simple and powerful like dust, ashes.