Gun Outfit

Out Of Range (Paradise of Bachelors)

Contact Patrick Tilley about Gun Outfit

Orpheus had a hell of a time. Of all the evocative modern retellings of the Orpheus myth—by Jean CocteauMarcel CamusPhilip K. Dick, et al.—none equals the blunt power of Ovid’s version in Metamorphoses. After losing his lover Eurydice, the great musician Orpheus swears off women and turns instead to the love of young men. He refuses to worship all gods but Apollo, inciting Dionysus’ female followers the Maenads to tear him limb from limb. Orpheus’ severed head and orphaned lyre, still singing and strumming—his bewitching songs “made the pale phantoms weep”—float down the Hebrus River to Lesbos, and his ghost revisits the underworld where he left Eurydice.


It’s this lesser known beheading-ending of the story that L.A. band Gun Outfit recount in “Ontological Intercourse,” the opening track of their fifth full-length record Out of Range, their most brutally beautiful statement yet: “Seeds/the kind that sparrows eat/becoming the willow tree/that Orpheus took beneath/To play ballads for the dead/Till they buried his singing head/Because he worshipped the sun instead/Of the god of epiphany.” Next time the chorus comes round, singer and guitarist Dylan Sharp—who shares twin vocal and guitar duties with the incomparable Carrie Keith—sings a mutant doo-wop bass line. Ballads for the dead, indeed.


Those strange, arresting juxtapositions between classicism and postmodernity—warped tales of Western civ melting into those of the American West—abound on Out of Range, a potent, highly allusive elision of mythologies and sounds that the band refers to as “Western expanse” music. Following “Ontological Intercourse,” the brooding “Landscape Painter” and “Cybele” wrestle with Dutch Renaissance artist Brueghel the Elder and the Anatolian goddess Cybele, respectively—not your average fodder for rock and roll lyrics. The album goes on to build a world in which St. Augustine rides with John Ford and Wallace Stevens on a Orphic-Gnostic suicide drive towards the hallucinatory vanishing points of the Southwestern desert, debating the denouement of the decaying American dream. (“I wanna lay my world on you,” Keith proclaims in “Sally Rose.”)


Meanwhile, other songs inhabit concerns more terrestrial and immediate, though no less profound: the open road (“The 101”); human love (“Three Words,”); death and the failures of faith (“Primacy of Love”); and the damages, deceits, and delights of drugs (“Strange Insistence.”) The latter quotes the Old Testament (Numbers 21:17: “Spring up/O well”) soon after reciting, ironically, the deadly seductions of narcotics: “Speed makes you a genius/Cocaine will make you rich/LSD shows you divinity/And everything’s alright on opiates.” “I tried to quit/before I quit again,” it begins with resolve, but after all, “lies can make you famous.” Throughout the album, the strange becomes familiar, and the familiar strange, a desert mirage of music and language; or, as Carrie sings in the Waylon-esque “Background Deal:” “The things she says/you never heard ’em before.”


And therein lies the magic trick: Out of Range somehow manages to contain Gun Outfit’s most conceptually sophisticated and lyrically ambitious material, while remaining their most musically subtle, understated, and accessible album to date, completing their gradual metamorphosis from punk aesthetics to a truly cosmic country—wherein “country” is a geography, a structure of feeling, not a genre. Yes, that’s the iconic Monument Valley landscape on the album cover, but in an impressionistic daylit photo by a family member, denuded of its cinematic magic-hour drama. Sharp explains the approach as “a kind of American neoclassicism, running through an enormous empty set piece of the historical frontier, the only stage on which our kind of puritanical decadence can successfully perform the irony of its existence, and thus salvage small chunks of high value scrap from the culture that now threatens the world with death.” (On the ballad “Slow Realization,” he sings, apologetically and archly, “Pardon me for the hippie talk.”)


Sonically, Gun Outfit has never sounded more confidently awash in its collective strengths and nuances, its players never more sensually attuned to each other’s playing. Like a stone eroded by years in the arroyo, the band’s enveloping aesthetic of guitar levitations and honky-tonk hexes has become gradually smoother over time. Sharp and Keith have become highly sensitive, idiosyncratic singers and guitarists—two voices that meld and ascend into a wild, honeyed helix. Drummer and founding member Dan Swire (drums, percussion, guitar) and Adam Payne (bass, guitar) comprise the rare rhythm section able to vault a song into the strata through sheer will (as on the kinetic, anthemic “Sally Rose”) or show remarkable restraint when required (“Primacy of Love.”) Henry Barnes, the legendary mastermind of Man Is the Bastard and Amps for Christ, has gone from mentoring multi-instrumentalist accomplice to official band member, scarifying these songs with his singular guitar, dulcimer, bouzouki, and fiddle parts as well as his own homemade hybrid instruments like the “sibanjar” and “springocaster lap-slide.” Engineered by Facundo Bermudez (Ty SegallNo Age) and mixed by Chris Cohen (Weyes BloodCass McCombs) in Los Angeles, the recording process spanned the 2016 presidential election. Dylan recorded the vocals for “Cybele,” a song about a religious cult, drowned antiquities, and the end of empire, ten minutes after the election results were announced.


Out of Range ends with the moving “Second Decade,” an unusually autobiographical and candidly self-reflexive meditation on the experience of playing together in a decade-spanning band, and the effects of of time on art. Using the stage as metaphor, each of Gun Outfit’s singers assumes a role in a Samuel Beckett play, Carrie as Winnie from Happy Days and Dylan as Estragon from Waiting for Godot: “Ten years attention/Trying to hold on/You were akin to Winnie/While I was doing Estragon.” They’re existential antiheroes, each half of an enduring partnership, who have returned underground, like Orpheus, to the out-of-range places they’ve known before, to play ballads for the dead: “Oh my/Caroline/Can you believe how hard it is to keep a love alive?/Ten years of working/And playing all our parts/We had to call it a country/Because it was bigger than a work of art.” And the pale phantoms weep.