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Release date: 2.1.19
Label: Sturdy Girl Records
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“Uncertainty is a terrifying concept to most people,” reflects Blank Range’s Grant Gustafson. “But I think there’s actually beauty in uncertainty, in the abyss, in the unknowable. Uncertainty is one of the few things that we all share in common, and acknowledging that affords us a certain grace, at least on a person-to-person level, because it forces us to recognize that we’re all in this together.”
That revelation might sound uncharacteristically philosophical for a rock and roll group from East Nashville, Tennessee, but Blank Range is no ordinary band, and their exceptional sophomore album, ‘In Unison,’ is no ordinary record. Equal parts invention and tradition, the collection showcases an obvious reverence for the past, even as it imagines its own adventurous future, one free of the artificial constraints of genre or style. Blank Range make American music, fueled by blistering instrumental chops and deeply probing lyrics that examine the ties that bind us in a world that feels more polarized than ever. Throughout the record, the band’s three distinct songwriting voices—guitarists Gustafson and Jonathon Childers along with bassist Taylor Zachry—weave together as seamlessly as their harmonies, each complementary in its distinctiveness but inextricably linked on a profoundly spiritual level.
“There’s an unspoken vibe at this point where we all know what Blank Range is,” says Childers, “but we’re also not afraid to step outside of that and grow.”
If there’s one thing Blank Range is known for, it’s that musical fearlessness. Hailed as “Nashville’s avant-garde rockers” by Rolling Stone, the band draws on Gustafson and drummer Matt Novotny’s extensive jazz training to consistently push the limits of their soulful rock and southern roots music, commanding audiences with unforgettable and constantly-evolving live shows ever since they first formed by cosmic coincidence.
“Matt and I needed a place to crash in Nashville while touring with another band, and we ended up at Grant’s,” says Childers, an Illinois native. “Grant lived on an old church property known as ‘The Parsonage.’ His roommates were all artists and musicians entrenched in the Nashville rock scene, which at the time revolved around a series of DIY houses spaces. Places where young bands could discover their voices outside the pressures of the industry. After four days in that environment, Matt and I were convinced it was time to get to Nashville.”
Before long, Blank Range would become lynchpins of the scene, and their musical versatility would earn them extensive tours with Margo Price and Tyler Childers in addition to dates with Drive-By Truckers, Death Cab For Cutie, the Mountain Goats, Spoon, and Alice in Chains. After a pair of early EPs, they released their debut album, ‘Marooned With The Treasure,’ to unanimous acclaim in 2017, with Vice Noisey comparing Childers’ delivery to “a southern-fried Bob Dylan” and American Songwriter proclaiming that “gutsy, sweaty confidence [exudes] from every track.” The record earned the band performances at Bonnaroo and Luck Reunion, as well as Best Rock Album of the Year honors from The Nashville Scene, who pinpointed its sound as “somewhere between the charming garage rock of The Replacements, the striking power pop of Big Star and the rough-hewn Southern rock of Lucero.”
The road to ‘Marooned With The Treasure’ was a long and winding one, though, and the band was keen to keep the momentum going once it finally came out.
“This band has three songwriters who like to work on overdrive,” explains Gustafson, “so whenever we finish a project, we’re already looking at the next. Within two weeks of releasing ‘Marooned With The Treasure,’ we had a bunch of new songs ready to go.”
When the hard-touring four-piece finally found a free week to record, they headed to an old farmhouse north of Nashville to isolate themselves with the new material. Beneath the home’s broad wooden beams, they set up microphones and formed a semi-circle in front of a grand stone fireplace, embracing their DIY roots by recording the whole thing live and raw with minimal gear and no time for second-guessing.
“When we record, we’re not laboring over little details,” says Gustafson. “We’re trying to capture the moment.”
“Something special happens when this band performs live,” adds Zachry, “and I think that’s because of the improvisational element. Grant and Matt both went to school to study jazz, and something different happens every single time we’re onstage together. Each performance is totally unique, and it was important for us to tap into that with this album.”
Pairing the explosive energy and spontaneity of their live show with all the sophisticated refinement of their songwriting, ‘In Unison’ captures Blank Range at their absolute finest and most confident. The arrangements are spare and spacious, propelled by infectious grooves and dynamic performances that draw on everything from Fleetwood Mac to Ennio Morricone. Album opener “Career” sets the tone, with airtight harmonies sweeping out over a pulsating rhythm section as Childers sings about the sacrifices our loved ones make in order to support our passions. Like much of the album, it grapples with the complexity of human connection: how we make it, how we hold it, what happens when we feel it slipping away. The Springsteen-esque “Radio” finds its narrator tuning into his lover like a frequency on the AM dial, while the lusty “Lonely, II” laments the fear and insecurity that keep us apart, and the dreamy “Infinity, By Name” zooms out for a cosmic perspective on our shared humanity. “Lost is just prayer you say,” Gustafson sings, “and close your eyes and look away from the only thing / We could truly sing in unison.”
“I met this girl on tour last year who confessed to feeling lost and alone, and it really stuck with me,” he explains. “In this existence, nothing is guaranteed, so I think that feeling lost is actually a way to know that you’re not alone. It’s maybe the one thing that truly unites us all.”
It’s that ability to shift perspective, to see unity in loneliness and connection in isolation that makes Blank Range so special. To be sure, there are moments of darkness and doubt on the album—Zachry sings as the ghost of what could have been on “Haunt You,” while Gustafson questions modern America’s understanding of freedom on the twangy and timely “Gutters”—but any divisions are ultimately outweighed by the band’s instinct to empathize and understand and see the world for the infinitesimally small speck of dust that it is. In that sense, ‘In Unison’ is a natural extension of Blank Range’s live shows, which play out as nightly invitations to embrace our shared humanity and celebrate all that connects us.
“At the end of the day, this album is a collection of songs written and performed by people who love each other and care about each other deeply,” says Zachry. “Our relationship with each other is constantly growing and evolving, and I think that shows in the music.”
The universe may be an uncertain place, but one thing’s for sure: Blank Range is here to soundtrack it, and they want each of us to sing along.