Unlike so many L.A. musicians, Gold Star's Marlon Rabenreither actually grew up in L.A., inoculated from infancy against everything they tell the tourists about Hollywood: "You see through it all," he smiles. Instead, he writes like the star of his own high-concept noir, a man pursuing the truth toward places in the city -- and in himself -- where few care or dare to go. On Big Blue, he matches an unsparing sense of punk-verite -- think X's Los Angeles or More Fun In The New World -- to Neil Young's dark-was-the-night guitar desolation and Leonard Cohen's deep and resonant detail for an album that feels like a much-loved cult movie and reveals itself as a fearlessly heartbroke-but-honest autobiography. Like he says on the first track: "Whoever you are / come with me."
He's been building Big Blue for years -- well, actually, he's been dismantling everything standing in the way of Big Blue for years, teaching himself to fight distraction and self-doubt. At first he was scared, hiding his voice and guitar behind waves of reverb and echo -- "That's how you deal with putting yourself on the line," he explains -- but he was steeling himself to really be himself. On his previous album as Gold Star, 2015's Dark Days, he cut through the camouflage, and on Big Blue, he peels it all away. Now it's a meticulous and unsparing L.A. album about leaving and loving and living in a place that never quite gets its say, with songs and stories from the backalleys and surface streets where the weight of decades -- Depression L.A., wartime L.A., rock 'n' roll L.A., pop art L.A., punk L.A. and more -- presses against you as soon as you step out of your car.
Big Blue is named after Rabenreither's grand old shipwreck of a Hollywood Craftsman built in 1909 that somehow still survives -- a California cousin of the Band's Big Pink. The freeway cuts through what was once the backyard, stray chickens strut across the street and loose cats curl up on cars in the driveway to get warm after it rains. He'd found in the house a center of gravity -- maybe a sympathetic character -- that could gather his experiences into stories, and make his stories into songs. He'd watch and write constantly, he says: "It's like setting a dinner table," he explains. "You want to be ready when the guests show up -- when you have an idea! If you're not writing ritually and habitually, you'll be unprepared."
Last October, he was ready. He'd tacked up blankets at strategic sonic points in his cavernous wood-beamed living room, recruited old friends to back his songs and rented the best musical equipment he could get -- but it had to go back in three days. That meant no going back on the sessions, not when the homebuilt recording set up meant vocals and the drums and the sound of the room itself were all dissolving into each other on the takes: "You either have it or you don't," he says. "But when the music is simple, that works."
So no autotune, no orchestral overdubs, no easy clichés or repeated tweaks that squeeze the life out, of course. He produced it himself, so he cut every song as close to its core as he could. Like Fante and Bukowski -- L.A. writers he admires, and whose neighborhoods he knows well -- he stripped out everything but what he meant. If he was scared of the truth in the true story he was telling, he knew he was telling it right: "Anything you see truly is universal in way," he says. "And anything honest is, in a way, real for everyone."
That's Leonard Cohen, of course -- Dylan, too, of course -- but also writers like Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler, whose L.A. dramas were so detailed you can still visit the intersections and office buildings he wrote about. And that's Big Blue, as Rabenreither goes to a house in the canyons and meets someone with a knife strapped to their knee, or takes a trip to London and spends the night with his not-quite-lover in a cemetery, or watches a woman watching him as his train leaves her behind forever. On "Sonny's Blues," a nod to James Baldwin's immortal short story, Rabenreither fights to find the right kind of light in a sweet-but-sad piece of country soul, and on "It Ain't Easy," he introduces the Band to Lou Reed for a song about waiting for a man with something you truly can't live without.
Across Big Blue are flashes of Elliott Smith, or of Wilco's most intimate moments (with maybe a wink at their Sky Blue Sky on Gold Star's "Blue Sky To Blue Sky") or pedal steel from the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo or the dreamstate guitar of Mazzy Star's David Roback, too; if this album is one long night drive, which it sometimes feels like, then those are the stars that light up Big Blue's Hollywood. And on final song "The Strangler," a wounded Dylan-style dirge about how it's hard to leave and maybe harder to be left, that ride and that story both end like every good noir must, with a quick fade to black and a final line that echoes on even when the music stops: "It wasn't til last night / It finally it happened to me," sings Rabenreither. "It finally caught up to me."