Over the course of seven years and five LPs (as well as a couple of singles and a handful of cassettes), the Philadelphia-based duo of Lea Cho and Russ Waterhouse have built their own extraordinary soundworld out of very minimal means. A cheap electric guitar, electric piano and synthesizers, percussion, and pedals and loops are the basis of Blues Control’s palette, but their vision expresses both concision and a broad-minded approach that brings with it ambient music, dub, breezy analog electronics, homemade/amateurish jazz improvisation, and lilting classicism. Valley Tangents is their latest LP, following last year’s FRKWYS collaboration with zither musician Laraaji (Edward Larry Gordon), and, continuing a penchant for label-hopping, it’s their first for Drag City. At 34 minutes in length and six pieces, Valley Tangents doesn’t overstay its welcome, but covers a lot of ground in its brief running time.
The opening “Love’s a Rondo” might be the most mature Blues Control piece on record; it combines love for Swell Maps, Manuel Göttsching, and Boston fusion group Worlds’ and all that those names imply. Loose percussive support from traps, cymbals, and congas grant airiness to a spiky piano and guitar duet that quickly unfurls into thin, flatted eddies and chunky turnarounds, marked by synth washes. Waterhouse splays out in a bit of gritty fuzz, but it’s not overpowering, instead hanging atop a sunny thrum. Keyboard fanfares and a mechanical backbeat signal the ridiculous entry of “Iron Pigs,” in which the duo finds a way to employ “chintz” to non-ironic ends. It’s a dangerous slope, setting tinny synthesized brass against a metronome and turning the results into a bright, funky march. But laden with a syrupy groove, the tune is easily kept afloat and absent hokiness.
Despite their full orchestrations, the duo’s essence is drawn from keyboard and guitar (not unlike Bay Area poly-stylists Grex), and even when supported by electronic effects and canned beats, their base axes shine through. Waterhouse’s cheap grungy guitar is curiously tasteful, an astringent complement to Cho’s alternately stiff and romantic clamber, heard to great advantage (along with flute, perhaps synth-derived) on the gorgeous “Opium Den/Fade to Blue” closing the album’s first side. “Open Air” finds Cho working through a filmic piano improvisation en plein air (hence the title). Muffled and swathed in environmental trappings, overlaid with reverberant electronics and indeterminate patter, it’s a home recording filled with a surprising amount of gravitas. The set closes with the excellent “Gypsum,” Cho’s right hand skittering upwards as her left has an earthy weight, all mated to a hefty backbeat. One can discern the palimpsests of vibes, cello, and organ in the breakdown that follows, before the focus shifts to a punchy, melodica-like keyboard solo. The third movement features a rather unexpected keyboard riff based on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” as the duo trade off noisy guitar and out-of-tune piano statements, the latter ricocheting towards an abrupt conclusion.
Had it been waxed 30 years ago and self-released in miniscule numbers, Valley Tangents would be a holy grail of the collectors’ market. And it’s not that unfair to historically qualify Blues Control — at times, they project a vibe that, while completely honest and bullshit-free, is also linked to the “all in” DIY/outsider environment of the 1970s and early 80s. Regardless, Blues Control are one of the most intriguingly unclassifiable outfits in contemporary music, putting forth music that is clear and refined while also being absolutely incomparable.