You have “I Love Lucy” video slots in Michigan? Whoa.
Now that’s thrown me. Dan Miller is a smart man — a saddened man, a man driven by personal heartache, fear of disease, a yearning for the more civilized depths of nostalgia, several hundred good-time show tunes performed by singers as disparate as Cab Calloway and Loretta Lynn, and a need to stand out. He despairs of Detroit’s reputation as a Mecca for garage rock and has always sought to subvert it — successfully, for the most part — ever since his days in the cow-punk combo Goober And The Peas. He sings with a stoop and a swagger. His melodies are never less than charming, and often bitterly melancholy. Yet he never once resorts to cynicism, preferring always to accentuate the beautiful (even if sad). He likes to pick and fiddle. His debut with Blanche — an album four years in the making, coalescing since the 1999 breakup of his and wife Tracee Miller’s previous band, 2-Star Tabernacle — is an aural delight, full of delicately stated vignettes, knowing and bittersweet, sometimes verging on the vaudeville. If you were expecting one more rush of blood to the head, you’ll be disappointed.
Instead, you have Dan and Tracee finding fresh ways to deal with the droll and delightful ’60s duet template of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. On “Do You Trust Me?” — one of the album’s standouts — Dan forlornly keeps asking the question in the title, Tracee’s response entirely depending on his intonation. On “Bluebird,” the two lovers discuss idealized love over some fine jaunty banjo work courtesy of Patch Boyle and David Feeny’s slick pedal steel. Always, there’s the faintest knowing whisper hovering in the background: this band is only too aware of the fickleness of life and look to their faith in people and friends to see them through.
Without a doubt, the most astonishing song is the old 2-Star standby, “Who’s To Say.” The White Stripes version (released on the flip side of their Bacharach cover “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”) is more upbeat, rougher, with venom behind the main vocal line. The Blanche reading is softer, more mournful and reflective — and all the better for it. Old 2-Star band mate Jack White even contributes a suitably bluesy guitar solo. “If you listen closely to the lyrics,” White commented, “the character in that song is so pathetic — has so much pathos — it makes me cry. When we recorded it, I couldn’t nail that emotion the way Dan does.”
Occasionally, Dan’s vocals can sound a little too overwrought (see their cover of The Gun Club’s steamy “Jack On Fire”). And, as the album draws to a close, the production does start to grate a little, especially on the otherwise fine centerpiece “Garbage Picker.” How many more layers of banjo, melodica and fiddle do we really need? It might have been nicer to hear the emotional cover of “Wayfaring Stranger” performed entirely a cappella, for example. But these are minor quibbles. They should not detract from the enjoyment of an extremely accomplished, articulate and emotional debut.
E-mail Everett True at [email protected].