Released on his own record label, Gabriel Sullivan's By The Dirt is an expressive and forceful debut that strings together junkyard brawlers, country weepers, jazzy haunts and a sort of peyote-streaked desert blues.
The first song hits like a raging storm dragging a voice that growls like gnarled mesquite bark, a wicked harmonica wail and percussion credited in the liner notes simply as "auto parts."
From clinking chains to haunted clarinet to pedal steel and soft violin strokes, Sullivan runs through a wide circuit of sounds, aided by an all-star cast of Tucson musicians: Joey Burns, Tom Walbank, Nick Luca, Marco Rosano, Andrew Collberg and Vicki Brown.
Like Tom Waits, and locals Howe Gelb and Joey Pena, Sullivan has a voice that can rough up the most gentle songs, leaving them all the better for a bit of smeared grit. It's the sort of voice that makes lyrics like "I've done things / That would bring the devil to his knees" completely believable.
"Sewer Cats" is a piano and strings ballad on the order of Waits' "On The Nickel," swinging gently from downbeat and dreary to uplifting and wistful. "Dillinger's Wings" is a driving roadhouse rocker about the famous fugitive's capture in Tucson, with Sullivan singing of the outlaw's disgrace: "Go down sin, go down shame / Let it all go up in flames today."
Other highlights are Sullivan's choice of covers: the chilling and ghostly rendition of Rainer Ptacek's "Life is Fine," and the rustic "The Gardens," by Chris Gaffney.
It's hard to talk about Sullivan's music without mentioning Waits or Gelb, but it's a credit to Sullivan's talent, originality and ambition that long before the conversation ends, those names have receded into the background, more footnotes than foundations.
Gabriel Sullivan live @ The HangArt
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