November 01, 2004

Gunshy "No Man's Blues"

An artist's voice can often be a factor that makes or breaks a band. Some artists have such a unique sound that, though grating at first, can often grow on you--think Stephin Merritt, Nick Cave or Will Oldham. Some artists possess a singing voice so wonderful that they can sing any crap (and often do) because they can, and they'll make said song sound totally, utterly beautiful--witness Scott Walker, Marc Almond or Jeff Buckley. Some artists sing in voice of such unique quality--like Joanna Newsome, Danielson Famile or Jandek--that you're polarized instantly.

I mention this because the first--and most overwhelming--thing you'll notice about The Gunshy is Matt Arbogast's voice. It's say the least. It's extremely rough. It's extremely gruff. At times, I can't tell if he's singing or if he's grunting, because his music is listen to. Going for a rustic country sound, with a little bit of folk and a hint of Dylan, No Man's Blues is a record of painful songs sung by a voice that's painful to listen to. Seriously, it was difficult listening to songs like "Congratulations" or "Stories" because his voice is just so overwhelming rough and harsh. Sure, it's one thing to have a gravel-rough voice, but it's an entirely different matter to sound like a pile of rocks.

Complicating the matter is that a. the songs themselves are really good and b. the musical accompaniment is even better. I wonder what "I Will Die Alone" and "Breakin' Some Bad Habits" would sound like with different vocals. Those songs are quite pained and touchingly wonderful, but they're hard to listen to due to the vocals. The backing musicians are quite excellent, too; the accompaniment is quite varied and accomplished, too--with banjo, flute, acoustic guitars, strings, harmonica and piano. And, to be fair, when he tones down his vocals on "Mistaken" and the title track, the results are quite excellent and rewarding. When he doesn't tone down his voice...well...

I don't know how tolerant you may be towards really rough singing, so be warned: No Man's Blues is a rough patch. Complex and pained, The Gunshy's music isn't for everyone, but if you like rough, painful songs written by a man with an even rougher singing voice, then you might find something to love here.

--Joseph Kyle

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