Pennsylvania native Daughn Gibson spent some time making stoner muck with Pearls and Brass, but in his first solo outing, All Hell, the onetime drummer has taken on a far more interesting role. As the album cover depicts him buttoning up a plaid Western shirt, it symbolizes his transformation into country crooner, albeit one whose metamorphosis has been aided significantly by the use of modern technology. Gibson kicks up a dark yet nonetheless very cool atmosphere via loops, samples and overdubs, but his most compelling instrument is his own voice, a deep and masculine baritone that would put him in friendly company among classic ’70s outlaw country crooners, if it weren’t occasionally slowed down and treated with various effects.
With such heavy electronics use on the album, there are moments when Gibson’s updated country noir arrangements begin to veer into trip-hop, as on the super cool downtempo exercise “Lookin’ Back on 99.” And while some have likened Gibson to James Blake through uniquely American filters, the sole track in which that seems most apt is “Tiffany Lou,” in which Gibson tweaks his voice into higher registers over the vaguest shadow of a dubstep beat. But All Hell, for how beat-driven it is, stands strongest in its pursuit of the heartbroken, desperate and sometimes downright eerie underbelly of Americana. The dusty breeze of opening track “Bad Guys” is a short but perfect entry point into Gibson’s whiskey-drunk C&W, though when he sings, “I’ve met a lot of bad… guys along the way,” it’s almost as if he’s channeling a naïve girl, and not the bassy gentlemen actually speaking the words. More than in any other track, on “Young Girl’s World,” Gibson resurrects the deep narrative power of Johnny Cash through a commanding, double-take worthy opening soliloquy: “I saw him, under the lights of the corner bar… crying.” Yet, while Gibson walks a path through a classic style of country sadness, his closing title track finds him facing some literal demons, complete with a fiery preacher’s sermon and a chilling arrangement playing the flames that lick the edges of his lament, “It’s a long way down.”
The closest artist in terms of approach, rather than actual sound, to that of Gibson is Dirty Beaches’ Alex Hungtai. Yet in the place of Suicide or Roy Orbison, Gibson looks to the Man In Black. All Hell certainly takes on an aesthetic route that frequently sounds nothing like Johnny Cash, yet the tortured spirit and undeniable charisma remains. Country music, on the whole, hasn’t changed all that much in 50 years, but thanks to Gibson, its possibilities have been blown wide open.