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More than ever, pop music is a hybrid form. We're utterly accustomed to the way that it metabolizes textures, flavors and cadences from far-flung corners of the musical landscape. The fusion of styles only strikes us as exotic when we sense incompatibility between the aesthetic values of the source material. A prime example? Any combination of old-time, bluegrass or string band elements — music understood to be unspooling unbroken threads of tradition with some degree of reverence — and the synthetic beat-making techniques of hip-hop and dance music. Such mash-ups have generated Eurotrash gimmicks and theme music novelties. But the Swedish DJ Avicii brought it into the mainstream when he tapped Dan Tyminski to sing the hook on "Hey Brother."
Up to that point in his career, Tyminski was best known for the rawboned, mountain soulfulness of his vocals in the trad bluegrass unit Lonesome River Band, the pinnacle of acoustic refinement that is Alison Krauss and Union Station, and the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, a stylized, sweeping survey of Depression-era roots music. Though he was initially skeptical about lending his voice to an Avicii track, he came away from the collaboration with a new, more flexible outlook — one that led him first into writing pop-country tunes to pitch to Nashville hit-makers, then into the exploration of post-genre music-making that became his new album, Southern Gothic.
Working with writer-producer Jesse Frasure, who's had a hand in some of Nashville's most successful, crossover-friendly output this decade, Tyminski went about softening the boundary lines between vastly different genres and approaches by placing an emphasis on mood and tone (an emphasis that extends to every aspect of the packaging and presentation, from shadowy, sepia-tone cover art that depicts cigar smoke curling from his mouth to plans to complete evocative, southern gothic-style videos in this vein for each of the album's tracks). He and Frasure sometimes worked from feel, building songs like "Perfect Poison" over beds of rhythms and samples. During the verses, Tyminski summons steeled desperation over the subterranean rumble of 808 bass, skittery, programmed percussion and a bluesy dobro figure.
He devotes the title track to capturing familiar small-town features in an eerie light. "Blackbird on the old church steeple," he sings, his omniscient narration cutting through pizzicato strings and a lolling, lurching beat. "Spanish moss hangin' in the settin' sun / Every house has got a Bible and a loaded gun."
In the blustery, anthemic tune "Hollow Hallelujah," whose impact is amplified by the pop-style stacking of harmonies, he testifies to suppressing spiritual and emotional honesty, but stops short of full-blown repentance. In "Devil is Downtown," a haunted, ethereal number, he warns of the anonymous, fetish-fulfilling seduction that can be found in the big city.
"Haunted Heart" opens with a loop that's all ticklish syncopation and rumbling bass, followed by what sounds like a baritone guitar mirroring Tyminski's wordless moans. He laces together ominous, rustic imagery, doubling his lead vocal with an octave plunge that stokes the dread just before the chorus.
"Breathing Fire," a track that lashes a midtempo banjo roll to a thumping, four-on-the-floor beat, is an example of how he calls on his down-home sensibilities in the crafting of the red-blooded, minor-key melody, but radically alters his phrasing, letting the syncopation breathe rather than hurtling ahead in double-time like he might in a bluegrass setting.
Many of the album's 13 tracks amount to broody, imagery-driven portraiture of hidden desire, religious guilt and unsteady conscience, zooming in on anxiety lurking beneath a photogenic, small-town surface. For Tyminski, who's going just by his last name in this venture, it's more than a viable reinvention — it's a downright compelling one.