By August Edwards
See Dust City Opera perform at The Historic Lobo Theater in ABQ, NM, on Friday, March 18.
Dust City Opera’s second album Alien Summer is as richly imaginative as the title suggests, and there’s something even weirder and darker about it than is perceptible at face value. Sardonicism and melancholia are songwriter Paul Hunton’s classic one-two punch, which we see here in spades. You might call this album transcendent, but only because it’s friendly with death.
To pin down DCO’s sound takes a moment: they’re tactfully clamorous, fun, and masterful; they have elements of folk, country, and of course, rock and roll. I consider their sound ragtag in a neat package. The Albuquerque sestet consists of Hunton (vocals, guitar, songwriter), Clara Byom (clarinet, accordion, keys), Travis Rourk (trombone), Chris Livingston (lead guitar), Scott Brewer (bass), and Dave Purcell (drums).
Alien Summer doesn't meander, it gallops; it doesn't comfort, it accuses. The first half of the album has you settling in, though nervously, and the second half springs back and forth so damn explosively. And it's delightful.
The first track of the album, “The Unkind,” is pure spooky madness. Between the organs and the trickiness of how minor chords are working here, it feels like it could fuel a haunted house montage for Mystery Inc. There are strong jazz undertones, not only coming from the chord progressions but from the drums as well.
“The Fog” creeps away from hectic, mysterious clamor, and merges into folk-like territory. Hunton’s gritty voice singing the chorus creeps through exactly like fog. Contrastingly, this is a fast song. DCO is replicating how any weather pattern is its own orchestra. Suddenly, the song produces evidence of ruination, lack of control, and deterioration happening almost against our will. Past the fog, I know the sun is hiding somewhere, but the album is keeping me on my toes so far.
“Love of Mine” is, again, surprisingly fast. The bass under the vocals when Hunton wails the chorus is distractingly potent. The song knows this though, so then comes a drum and bass break, which astoundingly breaks the inherent tension of the piece. It’s in this break that we know the drum and bass are driving this song. With this and an accordion, trombone choir, clarinet duet, and electric guitar solo, we have a frantic ode to our love.
“Angie” is my favorite song on Alien Summer. This song gives the illusion of slowing down, but still there’s a panicked heartbeat monitored by maracas or another type of shaker. This track is devastating and dazing, with song progression and melody to make David Bowie crack a smile. The vocals are haunting: ghostly falsetto; something that sounds like screams. This song fragments at the end, disintegrating into something that transforms the album itself.
After “Angie,” the album begins to take me on a trip of emotional whiplash. It starts subtly. “Alien Summer” comes in hot with the same heated passion as “Angie,” but with searing conspiracy. Hunton’s lyrics and vocal tone are whimsical but threatening. It’s hard not to focus my attention on the graceful, glorious clarinet that’s polka-dancing with the main melody. When the lizard-brain-hive-mind lets loose, it’s hypnotic and enticing.
“An Okay Way to Go” wastes no time opening with meth heads and dead bodies hanging out of cars. Knowing Hunton resides in Albuquerque, it’s hard not to instantly think of this track as a weird homage to the city—it’s a view that’s specific to a distinct group of people. Despite the violent visuals, there’s no bad blood or malice like you’d imagine. It’s got a feel-good country groove—it is, in fact, an okay way to go.
We now relax into “You’ll Be Okay,” a lullaby. This song affected me deeply, moving me to tired tears. I think this was partly due to how this album is structured—the fastness; the surface callousness; the growing concern I felt for what’s happening underneath these songs. “You’ll Be Okay” is a release. And it’s easy to imagine Hunton wrote this for his kids, who were toddling babies at the time this album was being created. Though, I could always be projecting.
Disturbingly, “It” jolts you awake if you listen to this album in succession. And this right here is why my initial listen to the album indicated something sinister is happening in Dust City Opera Land. All this considered, “It” is my second favorite after “Angie.” Another country groove that’s fast, catchy, friendly, but is rife with depression. Hunton sings, "It sticks to the inside of your nostrils / it's perched on the tip of your tongue / it sits in the corner of your eye / just waiting for a part of you to die."
This struck me in a profound way. Darkness, the same darkness that’s within all of us one way or another, is a powerful presence in this album. Hunton’s darkness plunges like waterfalls. Alternatively, we each contain so much light. This makes me wonder: why is Paul concealing his light, and where does it shine through?
At first, I didn’t think the answer was so simple as DCO at face value: a bright, ragtag orchestra tackling fast tempos together with grandeur. However, this is just the answer; the light truly does shine through with effervescent melodies. This conclusion felt evident and right to me upon hearing the second to last song of Alien Summer—“Tile or Linoleum.”
“Tile or Linoleum” opens with a crying baby, which lucidly brings to mind “Isn’t She Lovely” by—do I need to say it? I don’t, but I’m gonna—Stevie Wonder. However, I’m still reeling from “It.” The two songs—Stevie Wonder’s love and Hunton’s depression—are absolutely clashing in my mind. I wonder, what will “Tile or Linoleum” bring? Like so many songs before it, “Tile or Linoleum” is so bright and cheerful; however, it recalls a time when someone drunkenly cracked their head on the ground resulting in a bloody mess.
But, then. But then there’s a crying baby solo. Some may ask, Are you sure it’s not a bass solo? The answer is no—it’s a crying baby solo. Rarely do I laugh out loud while listening to a song—"Tile or Linoleum" made me do just that. And that’s totally all I needed to wash away all the concern and tension I felt from this insanely juxtaposed album.