Americana, I find, is a genre best served dark. That’s exactly why most contemporary country music fails: it’s too damn chipper. You need to hear the pain in the music. You need to feel the heartbreak. And, occasionally, you need it to creep you out. Not to be too cliché, but that’s exactly what made Johnny Cash such an immense talent. He had his upbeat love songs or his gospel hymns, but even those jutted out from the same murky depths as his murder ballads. Without that sinister air, the songs just wouldn’t be the same. But the same goes for some of today’s underground twangy talent’s—Neko Case, Will Oldham, Castanets—without a shadow cast over their melodies, they might not be as compelling.
For Chicago’s Low Skies, the tone almost never escalates above bleak. The mood is consistently melancholy. And the melodies are frequently droning. Even their very name portends a sense of foreboding: the…ahem…sky is falling. But Low Skies doesn’t rush to save themselves; they’re going down with the ship, and they’re singing dirges, not shanties, on their latest full-length, All the Love I Could Find. Somewhere between The Black Heart Procession’s goth balladry and the orchestrated landscapes of Rachel’s, Low Skies paint a dusty portrait best paired with dim light and a fifth of Jack.
Vocalist Chris Salveter has the sort of weathered and possessed voice that finds him in the same sonic company as American gothic predecessors such as Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Sixteen Horsepower’s David Eugene Edwards. On tracks such as “Sweet Young Girls,” Salveter sounds tortured, even a bit scary. Wailing lines like “All I could tell you was `this hell just won’t last’/when I was with you,” Salveter proves just how intense and unsettling real American music can be.
Unlike Gun Club or 16HP, however, Low Skies plays a more laid back, ghostly form of Americana, one that owes more to Nick Cave’s murder ballads than his freakouts in The Birthday Party. A song like “To Fail You,” for example, shuffles along slowly, with organ adding a colorfully harmonic aspect to the otherwise sparse and open track. And on “Cousin,” Low Skies even picks up the pace, veering toward a major key, but it is bright spots such as these that make the dark spots seem even darker.
It’s only natural to feel a little uncomfortable when listening to Low Skies. It’s not because they’re spastic or jittery; no, that sort of unrest comes immediately, while All the Love I Could Find creeps up on you slowly. Listening to this record, there’s no way around the eerie vibes, but that only goes to show how well Low Skies do what they do.
Black Heart Procession – Three
Sixteen Horsepower – Hoarse
Mark Lanegan – Whiskey for the Holy Ghost
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.