In terms of cringeworthy musical clichés, stating that "the blues" is a state of mind ranks near the top of the list. Thankfully, Queens-based duo Blues Control gets into the best kind of headspace possible: that of a total mindfuck. The band crafts woozy, inscrutable, seemingly endless instrumentals on one guitar and a keyboard (and sometimes an old drum machine), crafting music that always seems to be unraveling, at once hypnotizing and confounding.
Keyboardist Lea Cho is well aware of the fact that Blues Control's sound is very different from the prevailing modern indie-rock aesthetic. But, she explains, there's a "huge difference between sounding 'different' and sounding 'difficult.' Our music is less difficult than some indie-rock purists make it seem."
Cho shares a romantic and a musical partnership with bandmate Russ Waterhouse. They met in January 2002, when she needed a sublet and a mutual friend put her in touch with Waterhouse. "We just got along a little too well," he recalls, "going to shows or hanging out in the apartment listening to records while killing a bottle of whiskey."
A classically trained pianist at age 5, Cho was playing Carnegie Hall by age 11. For years, though, she was unable to perform anything other than classical music. "I always thought that the problem was me, that I was too rigidly trained or whatever to be able to play 'real' music," she says. Once she and Waterhouse began jamming in their apartment, though, "it was a complete shock to me how well we worked together."
Blues Control often gets compared to the strung-out art-rock of '90s icons Royal Trux, and while both acts share a parallel inner logic to their music, the similarities end there. Built up from tape loops or primitive electronics, Waterhouse's guitar oozes and flares, never quite settling into a pattern, while Cho's piano seems to be everywhere at once, underpinning the proceedings while also taking them further out.
"Always on Time," from Blues Control's previous album, Puff, evokes the earliest recordings of San Francisco's own obscuritans, the Residents. Puff's "Behind the Skies" sounds like a stoned teenager attempting to play the chords to Joy Division's "Transmission" before being overtaken by industrial sludge. Rather than rest on noise or drone like their Brooklyn neighbors might, the couple maintains an underlying melodic sensibility throughout. Live, Blues Control enthralls fans with the hazy drift of the music, but Cho assures that "there's always a planned structure to everything."
The pair's third album, Local Flavor, is their most coherent yet, at least in terms of their aesthetic sensibilities. "Good Morning" opens things up with a frantic lo-fi drum machine before moving into Waterhouse's fuzzy guitar outburst. Cho's deft piano accompaniment expands upon the melody. A touch of layered brass (courtesy of Jesse Trbovich and Matador buzz-artist Kurt Vile) caps off this lo-fi boogie-glam hybrid. Ambient loops and murky melodic excursions waft in and out of focus throughout Local Flavor, culminating in the mesmeric 17-minute smog of church organ and fried guitar on "On Through the Night."
Cho says the record is meant to evoke a general feeling "moving through life and places." She adds, "That includes mundane and abstract things, like an alarm clock on a Monday morning, or like the claustrophobic drone you experience during an airplane ride." As a headtrip, Blues Control takes you on a long, strange ride indeed.