The Transmissionary Six – Get Down

Having courageously jumped from their respective motherships just as alt-country mediocrity really began to set in, the duo of Terri Moeller (erstwhile drummer to The Walkabouts) and Paul Austin (former Willard Grant Conspiracy guitarist/songwriter) have made a compelling effort – as The Transmissionary Six – to rid themselves of the shackles of Americana cliché. That is something that continues with a tangible sense of self-confidence and craftsmanship on this, the duo’s third proper album, Get Down.

Recorded with the able assistance of several accomplices, including Tucker Martine (production aide of Jim White, Laura Veirs, et al.) and John Askew (from labelmates Tracker), Get Down is an album drenched in foggy deconstructed arrangements. With instruments chosen to fit the songs and not to satisfy band employment or muso ego, this collection leaves the alt-country music manual at the last truckstop, in favour of an unpretentious lo- to mid-fi aesthetic and an inventive stylistic palette.

Twinning eerie cello and sparse strumming, opener “Black Tin Rocket” sounds like a demo Kristin Hersh might have cut with REM circa New Adventures in Hi-Fi. With its elastic drum loops, mellotron, and Wurlitzer washes, the gorgeous “My New Name” recalls both Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and Mary Lorson & Billy Coté’s Piano Creeps. Even better is the sublime piano/drum driven instrumental “Johnny & Waldo,” which sounds like a rather fine homage to soundtrack impresario Bernard Herrmann, with a rhythm bed cribbed from Krautrock legends Can thrown in for good measure. The rustic blues scratch of “Holiday Park” ups the eclecticism stakes even further, as does the dark distorted instrumental “Element,” proving that outside of the WGC/Walkabouts stable, Moeller and Austin have explored their collective record collections just as well as their own abilities.

However, there are some catches to all this commendable sonic (re)tooling. Essentially, no matter how well fashioned the frames for these songs are, something is sorely missing at the heart of the writing. Barely any of the lyrics stick, even after a dozen listens. There’s a somnambulant stream of otiose lyrics about cars, bars, cable TV, and almost anything else a heavy-touring band writes about when it can’t find any interesting inspiration. It doesn’t help that Moeller, as the primary vocalist, has little range, expression, or individuality. Sometimes she sounds like a bored Lucinda Williams, but mostly she just sounds bored with herself.

It’s not that the vocal/lyrical element is a total downer, and these comments aren’t meant as lazy disinterested criticisms. This writer really willed himself to love that side of the equation, but ultimately it’s a complete product not the component ingredients that should make this stand up to further listens. This all said, of course, Austin and Moeller were smart enough to break free from the tiredness of their musical pasts, so there’s a good chance they can break the chains of their current limitations and stretch their imaginations that much-wanted extra mile. Then maybe we’ll be calling them The Transmissionary Ten instead.