Heather Leigh Murray - "Porch Fighter (excerpt)" (Devil If You Can Hear Me)
Over the past few years, Heather Leigh Murray has distanced herself from the ex-Charalambides tag. She’s expanded her pedal steel approach across solo CD-Rs and group work that drifts from ecstatic, fuzz-heavy howls or sheer drone walls to the clean, non-affected whispers that characterized the sole Scorces album with Christina Carter. Immersed in a collective like Dream/Aktion Unit or Taurpis Tula (the devastating trio with guitarist David Keenan and drummer Alex Neilson), Murray’s strings are able to blur between a textural base or stabbing solo patterns. In that, her make-up contains distance reference points from Giacinto Scelsi to Keiji Haino – imaginary grain silo blues.
Devil If You Can Hear Me is Murray’s first vinyl-only LP and finest recorded moment. While five years separate her first solo outing, 2002’s Cuatro, her voice still carries the same damnation sorrow. The harrowing vocal lines on the Side A opener, “Porch Fighter,” could be torn from a Southern Gothic tragedy that Harry Crews would dig. As Murray intones, “Johnny told you to come out from the road,” the pedal steel becomes a swarm of speeding motorcycles dragging past the solitary figure standing along the yellow lines before each tumbles with a tearing of ragged notes from the higher frets. When Murray modifies the vocal line repeatedly before ending with a threat, the whole thing becomes massively claustrophobic. Suicide territory.
Weather shredding strings like standing six-string players or building instant, miniature drones on the horizontal instrument, Murray’s range on the pedal steel creates a singular, and often non-guitar, sound. The notes sculpted with each pull on “Wrecking Crew” seem transcribed from a trombone or accordion. Where “Porch Fighter” offers more pronounced vocals, here they envelope the instrument in a gauzy layer with only brief moments of focus.
While Murray’s playing style neither approaches full improvisation or song structure, it carries a mixture of raw knuckle brutality and a fluidity reminiscent of one-time collaborator Jandek. The side-long “Candy Butcher” begins with chiming strings and undertow that barely create forward motion until the bass notes edge toward an expected climax that doesn’t arrive. Murray alternates layers of tones, strums and slight delay while building her vocals from exaggerated words into strands of a dense web. It’s a real time construct that finally gives away to shattering feedback and a viscous, fracturing attack. All notions of the pedal steel’s laid-back, country harmony are shattered as Murray extols jagged notes and blocks of electric noise that seem to rail against rock, jazz and other notions of freedom music. The side ends with Murray singing, “I don’t know who I am.” Let’s hope she continues to soul-search in this direction.