Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
A scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's first major full-length motion picture "Hard Eight," sometimes called "Sydney," has John C. Reilly's character - appropriately enough named John - explaining to Philip Baker Hall's character Sydney why he's sworn off ever again using matches to light his cigarettes, or anything else. Next is seen a flashing back to John standing in queue for a movie and the matchbook in his pocket igniting without provocation. He said he thought it had something to do with the friction and the third-degree burns he sustained on his leg almost gave him half a mind to sue the matchbook company for damages, pain and suffering and whatnot. That spontaneous combustion, the unforeseen flare up in John's pocket takes us a good distance in getting to the crux of what Brooklyn-based band Oakley Hall does live and on its latest long player, I'll Follow You.
A mere man - or a mere three men and two women - should not be able to summon such friction, the ability to light pockets and legs and heads on fire without any certain warning. This band, whether it knew it or not when it was in its creation stage, is the reason that there exists in the language a descriptive phrase for a song or a hot to handle moment, being called a barn burner. The band, led by the dueling harmonies of Pat Sullivan, Rachel Cox, Claudia Mogel and bassist Jesse Barnes, the boiling and expressive guitar/lap steel playing of Fred Wallace and newcomer drummer Pat Wood, can boil the meat off of bones and it can help those bones grow another layer of insulation instants later, like a burly sheep packing on unruly wool. They've made a sort of Western cauldron that beckons slant-eyed suspicions, weird domestic miseries that always sound like conundrums of a more mythological persuasion, hopeless and sometimes just as helpless love, and then there's all of the wayward wishing for the hard times, the hard scrabble to wean itself from bothering them any longer or at least diminish the lengths to which poverty (not just financial poverty) interferes with their daily lives.
Sullivan, a guy with manly hairy knuckles and a slightly hangdog set of cheek bones that don't belie all of the many histories he's capable of bringing out in these bluegrass bits of weariness and then the fighting of it, spends a goodly portion of his lyrical time collecting kindling, assembling the pit, clipping a fire out of thin air and then fanning the flames into a community of orange. What's so fascinating about the Oakley Hall fire is that it's so manageable and never one to sneak up on you in the middle of the night to burn your house down or to melt you tragically. It's not a cruel fire, though it's still unpredictable enough to be one to fear. It's more akin to the awesome force that Mother Nature has behind her back - usually shown only enough to perk your shakiness, never giving a full showcase, just the inkling.
I'll Follow You is more of a tender affair that it sounds, but the double edges of the sword are all apparent and it's their allusion that makes it dangerous - just as you can get from Bill Callahan and Thom Yorke and all of the best songwriters - letting it feel like a potential threat, something that could melt the soles of your shoes should you loiter in one spot too long. They find a way to singe your eyebrows and arm hairs while Sullivan takes to astronomical references - quasars, comets and stars - as briefings for the smaller subjects. It's a suggestion that the limits of ability and the long-winding tale of one day following another - stretching out like a flatland with an unreachable horizon -- storylines always tagged as to be continued, are the odyssey. It's all part of the spectacle and it's certainly something to get worked up about. Sullivan sings, "When you find only swine have the pearls/You're a livewire at-large in the world/…You've got the core of a bright comet/Rolling around in your eye sockets," and it's more of a mantra for the scarred faces and jittery nerved everyman than anything ever knew it could be.
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