by Rob Arcand
In a now-dated interview with Dusted Magazine, former Pavement member and Virginia-born, Nashville-native poet David Berman once, when asked about Virginia, tried to distance himself. As the interviewer inquired about some possible commonalities potentially unifying “Southerners” or “Southernness” today, Berman, in typical Silver Jews fashion, scoffed and remarked that “the white guys from the suburbs of Atlanta have a million times more in common with the white guys from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, than they do with sharecroppers or planters.”
While this certainly feel true today, notions of “Southernness,” somehow still persist. With the specter of Trump still heavy overhead and the backwardness of white “Southernness” still felt in full-effect, it seems fitting that we find ourselves again with art that, if not in direct response to the precarity of the times, still manifests itself in whatever can be termed “Southernness” in art rock. Where once the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and others sought to speak to the bizarre detachment necessary to justify existence—beyond both the violence rampant with the region’s lower classes and the strange, romantic ideals of phony heroism and the “Lost Cause” rampant with aristocracy—the literary tradition has long since faded into history.
Yet generations later, Daydreams in a Roach Motel, the latest from Richmond’s Cat Be Damned, embraces the lingering precarity of queer Southern life with a bizarre, haunting uneasiness that stands again in a new embrace of the chilling Southern Gothic tradition. The project of singer/songwriter Erik Phillips, Cat Be Damned pairs warm, analog synths and sprawling, tremolo-drenched guitar-jangle beneath Phillips’ soft, intimate voice. With a fragile, almost Neil Young, or Daniel Johnston falsetto, Phillips utters hushed lyrics of cheap lights and plastic candles, bitter hearts and teeth rolling like dice across the tile. “Boy eats flowers,” with the slow churn of a textural, guttural Boards of Canada-type synths, drapes this tonal melancholia in an image of eating flowers, a corrective gesture at inner beauty coupled with the erotic ambivalence of the line “it won’t make you ugly, put it in your mouth.”
Like the weathered wisdom of Acetone’s Richie Lee or a softer take on the dark spirituals of Elvis Depressedly—whose hazy Carolina history in many ways set a precedent for the style—Philips weaves Southern spirituality into the work; aesthetically, in art facing a “Salem Baptist Church” and its cemetery, but more subtly, on tracks like “drown” where they sing, “jesus walked in places where you’re gonna drown instead.” It’s a menacing statement with a soft inflection, some twisted words from the ghostly mouth of a young child.
Daydreams in a Roach Motel is a deeply weird release, one that pushes past a stale game of “spot the reference” to paint a larger regional portrait of gender identity and spiritual renewal, of life and death, horizon and transience in the thick flow of the James. Cat Be Damned’s hazy lo-fi feels like a fitting artifact of too many landscapes to count, compounded over soft synths and hushed vocals that teeter towards collapse. If the deep warble and wavering impermanence of cassette culture thrived somehow eighty, ninety, a hundred and fifty years ago, it’d probably go something like this. Whether or not we’d listen the same though, it’s hard to say.