Last year for Dystopian Halloween Party, I wrote about one of my favorite albums of the Halloween season, the Gun Club‘s Fire of Love. This year, I’m going to write about something a little more obscure and a little more personal: the early work of Detroit country-goth quintet Blanche.
I first encountered Blanche in April of 2003, when I saw them open for the White Stripes in the appropriately Gothic setting of the Scottish Rite Cathedral: a part of Detroit’s historic Masonic Temple complex now, oddly enough, known as the Jack White Theater. The band that stepped onto the cathedral’s ornately-furnished stage that night was a motley assortment of characters, almost as if they’d come right out of the 1930s Max Fleischer cartoons the Stripes had playing between sets. The frontman, Dan John Miller–formerly of cult cowpunk act Goober & The Peas, though I didn’t know it at the time–was tall and lanky, with a shock of Lyle Lovett-esque hair and the dress sense of an Old West undertaker; he looked like a cross between Hank Williams and Tim Burton. The other singer–who I later learned was Dan’s wife, Tracee Mae Miller–was almost as tall, with porcelain-white skin and ruby-red hair, wearing a vintage wedding dress and playing bass guitar with the eerie remove of an animated mannequin. With those two at the front of the stage, it was obviously hard to direct one’s attention anywhere else; but the rest of the band–deadpan banjo player Brian “Patch” Boyle, elfin drummer Lisa “Jaybird” Jannon, and the almost distractingly normal-looking pedal steel player David Feeny–also made an impression. Basically, they all looked like they were as likely to sell us some snake oil as they were to play us some music.
But they did play for us, and the music they played brought a delightfully autumnal chill to the mid-spring evening. I wasn’t much into country music at the time–Blanche, in fact, played a not-insignificant part in opening my mind to the genre–but there was something wonderfully weird and spooky about not only their stage presence, but also their deceptively bright, tuneful songs, each concealing its own undercurrent of darkness. The interplay between the alternately laconic and neurotic Dan and the unnervingly placid Tracee injected their opening number, “Do You Trust Me?” (see the video above), with a subtle dose of menace; you never quite knew when the anxiety-ridden lover’s lament was going to spiral out of control and turn into a murder ballad. Even a Blanche song with an explicitly happy ending–like “Bluebird,” a kind of inversion of “Do You Trust Me?” in which a husband reassures his wife after a visit from a talking bird of ill omen–radiated with an Old Weird America folk-surrealism that was thrilling to behold. The juxtaposition of nostalgic warmth and the chill of the uncanny is endemic to Blanche as a band; just think of their name, which evokes the Old South and Tennessee Williams, but also describes the pallor of a frightened or ill person. Or a corpse.
By the end of the Scottish Rite show, I was a convert: a full-blown Blanche fan. I saw the band three or four more times around Detroit over the next year, and they were just as electrifying every time–especially when they came to their standard show-closer, the bluegrass-tinged raveup “Someday…” (see video above). At this point in the performance, Tracee would hop on the drums while Jannon strummed an acoustic guitar, fixing the crowd with a piercing gaze, and Feeny and Dan took turns ranting like a pair of dueling revivalist preachers. Then, just as the music reached a fever pitch, they’d move into the song’s coda: a ghostly lullaby sung by Tracee whose words, “Someday you’ll find out,” were at once blissful and deeply disquieting. Somewhat less theatrically, I was also partial to “Superstition“: a faster-and-louder-than-usual number whose reverb-laden electric guitar made it sound a bit like the “garage rock” that was still my main musical interest, while the paranoid lyrics gave Dan plenty of opportunities to bug out his eyes and howl.
But for all their bizarre charms as a live act, I probably wouldn’t be writing about Blanche now if their songs weren’t also up to snuff. So I’m happy to say that even now, over a decade after the last time I saw the band in concert, their music still holds up. Probably their most recognizable song–thanks to a timely cover version showing up as the B-side to the White Stripes’ “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”–is the remarkable “Who’s to Say…” : a wryly witty, yet melancholy song written from the perspective of a stalker, with a vocal performance so deeply inhabited by Dan Miller that even this troubled character with self-described “clammy hands and nervous laugh” starts to seem sympathetic. It’s a song so timeless, it feels like it could have been written virtually any time in the last hundred years. The same could also be said of “So Long, Cruel World“: a darkly comic musical suicide note with a vocal melody straight out of the Cab Calloway songbook. I can vividly remember at least one Blanche show when the band covered Leon Payne’s chilling serial-killer ballad “Psycho“; probably the best praise I have for them, as a Halloween band or otherwise, is that their original compositions can stand toe to toe with that deranged cult-country classic.
In the end, though, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t end this somewhat aimless meander down memory lane with two of my favorite Blanche songs–which just so happen to be covers. Their version of the Gun Club’s “Jack on Fire” (see the live video above, from a show at Detroit’s Magic Stick at which I may or may not have been present) is somehow even more haunting than the original: softer and more deliberate, with Ward Dotson‘s dissonant guitar replaced by Dave Feeny’s elegaic pedal steel, and a brilliant use of Tracee’s vocals for the final verse that both takes the misogynistic edge off lyrics like “I will fuck you until you die” and, somehow, makes them even creepier. Then there’s “Runnin’ with the Devil“: a winking bit of self-parody that recasts the Van Halen classic rock radio staple as a Carter Family-style country gospel number, and somehow manages to sound as authentically felt as it is tongue-in-cheek.
I don’t know what happened to Blanche. A little Internet research has at least kept me abreast of some of their members: the Millers are still in metro Detroit, raising two children (but apparently not so settled into domesticity that they didn’t make Hour Detroit‘s Best Dressed list this year); Feeny is running Tempermill Studios in Ferndale, Michigan and playing with the band American Mars; Patch Boyle apparently left the music business entirely to co-found the Detroit web magazine Model D. But the whereabouts of the band itself are much murkier. Their Wikipedia page describes them as still active, but they haven’t released any music since their 2007 sophomore album Little Amber Bottles, and their Facebook hasn’t been updated since (fittingly enough) October of 2010. Their website is still up, but–I kid you not–it’s exactly the same as the one I used to visit over a decade ago, and the page listing “Personal Appearances” is empty except for a dead MySpace link. They’re the musical equivalent of a ghost town: an empty shell, the inhabitants gone without notice.
And to be honest, as much as I’d like to see another album or tour from one of my former favorite bands, I can’t help but think that this is a fittingly mysterious end. Blanche always projected a kind of spectral, anachronistic image, like the ghosts of a traveling medicine show from days long past. Now they really are gone, and the traces they left behind–their music, and the memories of those who saw them–are all that remains. So let’s take a moment to hold onto those memories, of perhaps the best damn Halloween band I ever had the good fortune to see.
Blanche’s 2004 debut album, If We Can’t Trust the Doctors…, is regrettably out of print; on the bright side, it’s also dirt cheap on Amazon, and worth every penny.