by Sam Woodring (@mistergoblin1)
I’ve known Kevin Brusha for years as a strange, charming, generally bathrobe-clad individual who has long lurked in the Philly DIY scene as a member of countless bizarre and wonderful projects. Having lost track of him for a while, I had no idea what to expect the first time I saw his most recent musical venture, Ma’am. Certainly, I had no idea what to expect from the show, which was being held at a church called St. Bab’s (apparently named in honor of the owner’s mother) in the bougie, Trump-sign-riddled coastal town of Cape May, NJ.
My first impression of the band was formed pretty immediately: meeting Ma’am felt less like hanging out with a road-weary clique vying for wifi in a dimly lit green room, and more like meeting a traveling family circus. They giggled amongst themselves before, during, and after the show. They called a hotline (Callin’ Oates) that serves no purpose other than to play one of three Hall & Oates songs. They held pre-show singalongs in the church graveyard with a banjo and a bass trombonist. Singer/guitarist Arealia Lopatic got in trouble with the church owner (who was a dead ringer for a slightly dreamier American Idiot-era Billy Joe Armstrong) for playfully telling Brusha to “shut the fuck up” in the middle of the set. It was a peculiar, wonderful evening, and one that could only have been possible in the twilight zone of the DIY world. The reason I invoke this weird, invigorating show is because their record, well, sounds like that kind of time.
Can’t Talk, Being Chased is densely layered, complete with tasty country flourishes like fiddle, lap steel, and horns, but still feels appropriately rough around the edges. You could imagine the band honing the album highlight “Mute ‘Em All” in a Philadelphia basement, adding every possible overdub to try and make it sound like it wasn’t honed in a Philadelphia basement. The EP is fun, above all things (“Sometimes I can be pretty reckless/with certain things like beer for my breakfast”) but betrays the occasional darker moment (“I’ve got plans that include death/you say you’ll never die.”) Lopatic’s voice breaks in all the right places over these arrangements, which recall the best of Americana’s golden days but never feel like inversions of existing songs. The songs could stand on their own as stripped down acoustic/vocal numbers, but the overdubbing helps the record feel like the party the band exists inside of.
Authenticity has become a big talking point in country/folk music of late, and even before Lil Nas X there was the matter of reformed emo bands rebranding as lovelorn twangers. Not that any one of these is more valid than the other, but Ma’am actually come off though they were raised in a bizarro world where perfecting a cover of “Ambulance Blues” was the cool thing to do instead of replaying the “Enter Sandman” riff ad nauseum in a guitar center like the rest of us. They may work in a particular style, but never in a way that feels like a genre exercise—and the guitarist’s mutton chops are as real as anything I’ve ever seen.