Greener Pastures

They're currently enjoying the indie-scene buzz that can turn a little-known local band into an international sensation overnight, but Rachael Hughes and Nathan Shineywater's brief history as Brightblack Morning Light did not begin auspiciously. As Hughes recounts over the phone from a tour stop in Florida, she and Shineywater met a few summers ago in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. He was playing in a band called Rainywood, which he'd formed after moving back to Birmingham following a spell living in California. Planning her own move west, Hughes struck up a conversation about life in the Golden State; eventually talk turned to Rainywood's music.

"They had a Fender-Rhodes but no band member to play it," Hughes remembers, referring to the old-school electric piano used on every vintage soul record ever made. "So I went up to where they were living and practicing and started playing music with them." So far, so good. The bad part came when the new outfit played its first gig, a multi-band benefit for the Green Party of Alabama. "About a hundred people showed up," Hughes says, "but nobody from the Green Party. They said that they got the days wrong or something, even though we'd been contacting them for two months about it." She laughs. "It was pretty pathetic."

No wonder the pair soon relocated to north of San Francisco and began living out of a car, saving money from various tours with indie bigwigs such as Will Oldham and Dave Pajo in order to record their first album, 2004's narrowly distributed Ala.cali.tucky. Last month's self-titled follow-up (the band's debut for indie giant Matador) is the year's best record to get high to (which may or may not be why those Alabama Green Party reps failed to show). A sprawling collection of 10 barely distinguished grooves, Brightblack Morning Light conjures a drowsy haze in which keyboard riffs burble gently while male-female vocals coo in slow motion and electric guitars trace shapes in the air like sparklers.

Shineywater and Hughes have strong ties to the current freak-folk scene--they just completed a series of shows with Philadelphia's Espers--but their music nods in more directions than a lot of the stuff from that sphere. Brightblack cuts like "Friend of Time" and "Everybody Daylight" simultaneously recall the majestic space-rock of Spiritualized, Al Green's humid Memphis soul and the bleary, strung-out blues-punk of Royal Trux.

A proud Southerner, whose pronounced drawl hasn't been sharpened by the West Coast, Hughes notes how important it was that the band's music reflect the members' Southern roots. They made the new album over three weeks in former Zwan member Paz Lenchantin's home, where Hughes says they could achieve a relaxed, rural vibe a professional big-city recording studio simply couldn't offer. (They also recorded horns and backing vocals in Nashville with country-soul producer Mark Nevers, who worked on a mixing board previously used by Lynyrd Skynyrd.)

"We knew what we wanted," Hughes says, acknowledging the band's recent change of fortune. "Everything just fell into place."

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Mikael Wood

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