Nobody’s ever gone broke overestimating rock ‘n roll’s ability to rediscover itself. One of the salient trends in indie rock over the past decade has been a genre-wide rediscovery of new wave music, leading to a lot of acts – Twin Shadow, M83, and a horde of singer-songwriters blowing up their sound come to mind – becoming ‘80s pastiches. Others, like Dent May or Mac DeMarco, look a little further back to glean the best parts of ‘70s A.M. radio.
For Nashville instrumental duo Steelism, who are playing Good People Brewing Company on Oct. 30, the gold vein stretches even further back. Building from a surprisingly ample framework of guitar and pedal steel, the band’s sound is a strange brew of classic country and western music, Spaghetti western soundtracks, surf rock and electric blues. The many elements constituting Steelism’s sound are something borrowed, but the synthesis is something new.
The band is a collaboration between longtime Nashville session musicians Jeremy Fetzer (an American on guitar) and Spencer Cullum (an Englishman on pedal steel). They’ve collaborated with some of the best alt-country acts in the game right now – including Jonny Fritz and Caitlin Rose, with whom the Steelism duo first got to know each other on a UK tour – and on their new LP 615 to FAME, they make a convincing argument that sidemen deserve their day in the limelight.
Recorded in part at Muscle Shoals’ renowned FAME Studios and released on Single Lock Records, 615 to FAME appears to possess few elements of the famous Muscle Shoals sound outside of its knack for ready grooves. Instead of the muddier sound that’s become synonymous with the region, Steelism’s approach is relentlessly fastidious, as each instrument feels like it’s exactly in its right place in the mix.
With some bands, that clean sound might pose a problem, but it works perfectly for Steelism’s defiantly retrospective, cinematic music. Without uttering a single syllable to elaborate on the storytelling, each song on 615 to FAME paints a distinct scene with meticulous detail. The duo’s facility with a wide variety of styles – Ennio Morricone operatics on the opener “Cat’s Eye Ring”, Tarantino-ready grooves on “The Landlocked Surfer”, Glen Campbell-style country on “Tears of Isabella” and, in the highlight of the record, krautrock’s motorik beat on the transcendent “Marfa Lights” – allows them to improvise on the audience’s expectations about each genre while keeping themselves well out of firing distance of accusations of ripping anyone off.
While it may seem a little off-kilter to compare an instrumental band to one of the most lyrically opaque and self-referential acts in rock history, Steelism evoke nobody so much as Steely Dan, at least to this listener’s way of thinking. Like Steely Dan, Steelism’s sound is discernibly fussed-over and studio-oriented, and both acts are concerned with economical storytelling as much as they are with showcasing their musicians’ considerable chops. The most overt similarity, though, is the bands’ shared sense of humor, which constantly veers between clever irony and outright goofiness.
On All Hallows’ Eve Eve, Steelism will be the main attraction for a Halloween-themed night of fun at Good People. It’s hard to say what exactly that will mean in practice, but in light of the fact that Steelism are one of the best bands in America when it comes to evoking a mood – not to mention the fact that they’ll be providing a new version of the Adam West Batman theme song for a documentary on Willie Perry, Birmingham’s own Batman – it’s safe to say that you could do a lot worse for a spooky night of music, costumes and fun.
Steelism will perform at Good People Brewing Company at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 30.