Blister Steel is the latest release from Portland, Oregon’s Roselit Bone. With founding member Joshua McCaslin further cementing his place as a lyricist/songwriter of the first order, the material conjures images of broken world, one that Cormac McCarthy might find one mark over the line of disturbing, one that Nick Cave might categorize as bleak. No doubt either/both man would find some semblance of catharsis in these songs. It’s more than darkness for darkness’s sake and McCaslin proves that there’s a separation between his often harrowing images and the man friends and strangers encounter on the street.
McCaslin adopted Portland as his hometown a decade ago, starting Roselit Bone as a duo circa 2013. The unit expanded to the nine-person mark with flute, trumpet, pedal steel, accordion and violin finding their place in the mix. Influenced by Mexican music and disparate Americana strains, the music on Blister Steel eludes easy categorization but one suspects its creator and executors wouldn’t have it any other way.
Though there are lyrical and musical threads that find their way through the songs on Blister Steel, some of the material reaches back to this album’s predecessor, 2014’s Blacken & Curl. “I sit on songs,” McCaslin says. Songs such as “Leech Child” and “By the Glint of Your Horns” were already in live rotation for a few years before the group committed them to tape. What is markedly different this time is that Roselit Bone has become a far more collaborative endeavor.
“With the first album it was mostly me alone in my warehouse space,” he recalls. “I would just layer things on my own. This time, I had nine or 10 different members who all had input. Generally, I write the songs so that they work all on their own as solo acoustic pieces. I’ll do trumpet arrangements and a lot of that stuff before I even bring it to the rest of the band. When I bring it to the band, I always make sure to leave room for the people who like to improvise and add atmospheric stuff, so they usually have space set aside for them in the compositions.”
Despite an expansive lineup, the material heard across Blister Steel and its predecessor rely on open spaces. The eeriness and emptiness of the world McCaslin has conjured into being crackles across the latest record’s 10 cuts. “It was never my intention to have such a big band,” he says. “It was a little more raw, aggressive and based in the Delta blues at first. As I got more into Western music and Mexican music, I started adding people.”
Valerie Osterberg (flute) and Barry A. Walker (pedal steel) came into the band as a couple. “I never thought of having pedal steel in the band until I heard Barry,” McCaslin recalls. “When I saw them, I just thought I should have them both in the band. But I wasn’t looking for them. A lot of times, I’ll see someone who’s a pretty great musician and then find a place for them. But I think I’m done,” he adds. “I’m capping it at 10.”
The roots of Roselit Bone’s sound can be traced to The Gun Club which led him to Son House and Skip James as well as Dave Von Ronk. “I really loved the Ragtime players,” he says. “I still love that sound and play like that quite a bit. When we were just a two-piece, that guitar style was the most prominent.”
He formed an early appreciation of Scott Joplin-style piano playing as well as the country music his grandparents loved. “Some of it was pretty bad but they did listen to Marty Robbins and a lot of old hillbilly music,” he says. Odetta came into the picture later but left a lasting impression. “I think she was the first folk artist that really embraced what I’d consider a Western sound,” he notes. “She had those operatic vocals and that minor key style of guitar playing that I loved.”
Within her music, he says, he found something akin to a lack of an internal dialogue. “It’s like reading a Cormac McCarthy novel or something,” he says. “If there’s violence described, it’s just part of the landscape and I think you can find some Odetta songs that are deeply like that.”
Though he can understand that some will draw comparisons between his own music and Americana, he’s not eager to segregate the music. “I think it has traditional elements without being hardcore traditional,” he says. “I’m not crazy about dividing up genres like some people. I grew up as a punk and goth kid. I get it. We’re obviously not making authentic Mexican music but there are people who see us showing respect to ranchero music and trying to work it into something new. They seem to like that. It’s not a novelty band for us, it’s another tool.”
As for the lyrical content and manner in which violence is represented in his songs, McCaslin chuckles slightly, hinting that it’s a question which comes up often.
“For a lot of the stuff that’s on this record, it wasn’t experienced firsthand, so there is a distance from it that I think allows me to safely write about it. But I’m not doing it out of novelty. A lot of this is drawn from people I know,” he says. “I feel like I’m privileged in that I can write about the things I do. I think that’s why you don’t see a lot of lyricists that go that deep, because it might hit a little too close to home.”