Album Review: Vehicle Blues - Self-Titled Retrospective 7"

Around six or seven years ago, I became really, really interested in cassette labels.

It all started innocuously enough when I ordered one cassette from Kevin Greenspon’s label, Bridgetown—this was back when I had a desk job that paid me way more than it should have, and I spent parts of my day searching corners of the internet for new music, then using my newly acquired disposable income to purchase it.

From Bridgetown, I had ordered Charlotte Loseth’s cassette—the two albums that she had released, at that point, under the Sea Oleena moniker. When the cassette arrived at my office, it included a handwritten note from Greenspon himself, who thanked me for my purchase, and encouraged me to check out another Bridgetown title—Ashes, from Bryce Fletcher’s then folky/shoegazey project, Reighnbeau.

This is how it started—ordering a handful of cassettes from Bridgetown, then wading out farther into other cassette labels out there, like Brent Mitzner’s now defunct Hi Shadow, Teen River, or Solid Melts—and overall, just openly embraced this newfound discovery of cassette culture: incredibly small labels, making very limited production runs of tapes for artists operating deeply underground.

I began ordering certain artist’s out of print cassettes from re-sellers on Discogs, and at times, I was overwhelmed and in awe of the ‘culture’ aspect of it all—one artist, responsible for their own label, would then have a new title released via a different label, or would be featured a part of a split release with an additional artist.

I get the impression that, for some, it’s difficult to keep all this up. Hi Shadow, as mentioned, is a thing of the past—Mitzner has since started “Uncle Daddy Limited,” a label with three releases thus far, and Greenspon’s Bridgetown is now on what I glean to be indefinite hiatus. Some labels, like Haute Magie, just close up shop and disappear without a trace—something that seems impossible in our internet age.

One constant in all this, though, is Gabe Holcombe’s Chicago based Lillerne Tapes, an imprint that is gearing up for its 105th release later this year.

During my heavy tape buying days in 2012 and 2013, I had ordered a few cassettes from Holcombe, as well as a button he was selling that said ‘Be Sad Forever’ on it. I managed to hold onto that button for six years—being careful when I would pin it onto a shirt, and adopting the expression as a bit of a ‘brand’ for myself.

Earlier this year, I lost my ‘Be Sad Forever’ button—I wore it to work, and in looking down during my shift, noticed it was gone. Maybe it’ll turn up someday—found, covered in dust, underneath a shelf, or rescued from the far reaches of the produce cooler, but I contacted Holcombe via Facebook to ask if he had anymore I could order.

It turns out he had a few left—he sent me four, for free, keeping one for the ‘archives’ as he put it, and also offered to send me a recently released 7” for his project, Vehicle Blues.

While Holcombe himself has seemingly focused on Lillerne as a label in recent years, save for playing a smattering of shows in 2015, Vehicle Blues, following the release of both the Letter Writer EP and the “Luke Song” 7” single in 2014, has remained dormant.

Holcombe described the 7” he was sending me as a ‘best of’ for Vehicle Blues, and at first I was a little perplexed how one could release something like that on such a small piece of vinyl, even if it played at 33 rpms; however, I forgot that many of Holcombe’s Vehicle Blues tunes are criminally short in length, meaning that something like this was, in fact, plausible.

Compiling eight tracks onto the physical edition, and tacking on an additional four in the digital version, the simply and aptly titled Vehicle Blues arrives via the UK label, Box Bedroom Rebels. A limited edition pressing of 250—(36 remain according to the label’s Bandcamp page as of this writing)—it’s clear that this retrospective was compiled and assembled with care. Pulling material from myriad releases of Holcombe’s, the 7” also includes Vehicle Blues stickers, double-sided sleeve art, and liner notes written by Box Bedroom label head Kevin Rolfe.

As pressed for time as one would be to cram eight tracks onto a 7” piece of vinyl, Rolfe has done a great job in selecting material that, if nothing else, can serve as a great introduction to the vast canon of Holcombe’s recorded output as Vehicle Blues, as well as one of his other, far less used monikers—Gelatin Kids.

It’s difficult to describe Holcombe’s sound as Vehicle Blues—imagine ‘lo-fi,’ but now picture something even more ramshackle, hard to decipher, and barely held together. In the liner notes, Rolfe refers to it as ‘no-fi,’ which is, I guess, as close as you can get to a description—Holcombe leans toward a dreamy, woozy, shoegazey kind of sound on many of the tracks selected for this collection, with small stops in soundscapes created by chintzy keyboards.

The Vehicle Blues collection really wastes no time getting down to business—I mean, there is literally no time to waste when you are putting this many tracks onto a 7” record. It opens with the swooning, gorgeous downcast cacophony of “323,” one of three songs pulled from the Letter Writer EP that are included here. As one would expect from something so influenced by shoegaze, released by a DIY artist, Holcombe’s vocals are (purposefuly) buried deep within the mix—it’s like you are on the cusp of being able to make out what he’s saying, but it keeps slipping away from you, creating a unsettlingly beautiful atmosphere.

“323” is followed up with “Letter Writer,” a track that is cut from the same sonic cloth as its predecessor, though it flips the downcast vibe for something exponentially more energetic.

The rest of the 7”’s first side pulls two tracks from the Gelatin Kids cassette Don’t Be A Victim, including the haunting, sparse titular track, and the fuzzed-out, 40 second burst of “We Never Close.”

As the second side of this collection begins, “OD Plus,” from a split cassette released in 2012, finds Holcombe working within that aforementioned energetic territory—though here, it’s blown out entirely, as the song is overpowered by a gnarled, crunchy, and distorted guitar—leaving his soaring, yet muffled vocals, and the skittering rhythm from a dusty sounding drum machine buried as deep into the mix as they can go before they are gone completely. The way it’s mixed—as with many DIY, cassette based artists—can be a bit of a shock if you aren’t expecting it, though in the hands of someone as good natured as Holcombe, it’s also surprisingly fun.

In a smart contrast, presumably premeditated by Rolfe while compiling this retrospective, he returns to the Letter Writer EP’s material with the swaying, steady, and pensive “Just Go.”

The Vehicle Blues collection—at least the physical edition—wraps up with two of Holcombe’s more experimental pieces—or, at least, material that slightly diverts from the aesthetic you may have come to expect from what you’ve just heard. “#1 Downer Girl,” another Gelatin Kids contribution, is heavy on the synths and cheap sounding drum machine rhythms. Another change here is that Holcombe’s vocals are pushed higher up in the mix, though still absolutely drenched in cavernous reverb—the whole thing works to create a strangely hypnotic two minutes that you can’t help but get lost in.

The final inclusion of the 7” is an excerpt from an instrumental piece called “Kevin Kostner”—originally part of the Rok Lok label singles club from a number of years ago. It, like the track before it, is structured around repetitive and hypnotic rhythms and sequences. It serves as a short ‘outro’ to the 7” proper, but is included in its entirety in the supplemental tracks available when you download the Vehicle Blues collection via Box Bedroom’s Bandcamp page.

The fourth track from the Letter Writer EP—“Slack Look,” as well as old favorites “Koz Park” and “Oscar Bought A Boat”—both of which date back to a noisy 2011 cassette single released via Bridgetown—are the three additional digital bonus tracks.

Falling into the seemingly endless clickhole of cassette labels can be overwhelming, and you may find you have an urge to need every release by an artist you glom onto, or a label that continually puts out quality releases. A concise collection like this doesn’t so much cut out the guess work of “where do I start” with an artist who has so many releases to their name, but it provides an excellent and thoughtful way to ease your way in.

Holcombe may (or may not) have hung up the Vehicle Blues moniker a number of years now, shifting his focus to releasing the music of others, rather than making his own—however, Vehicle Blues serves as a great reminder of what may have drawn you to all those cassettes in the first place.

The Vehicle Blues 7" is available now from Box Bedroom; explore Gabe's work as Vehicle Blues here, or his label, Lillerne, here.