Take a fairly intelligent three-chord progression and pair it with minimalist vocal melodies executed at a snail’s pace, and you’ve accomplished 90 percent of what decent “slo-core” music requires. The other 10 percent isn’t so easy to pull off, but smart lyrics, musicianship, and the power to evoke an emotional response bring the package to completion.

The Quad Cities’ The Winter Blanket provided a capable 93 percent or so on its debut album, Hopeless Lullaby, with the necessary chords, droning vocals, and tempos. True to form, “Actors & Actresses,” the opener and title track to The Winter Blanket’s sophomore effort (due in stores March 5), is a viable candidate for ghost track on Lullaby. The good news is that “Side by Side,” the very next track, is, at least melodically, like that first blast of air that fills your lungs once you emerge from the envelopment of water.

The Winter Blanket has thankfully shed its former and arguably cloned skin this time around. Make no mistake, the group is most definitely hovering in the slo-core atmosphere, but it’s managed to bring something to the table, namely the ability to expand upon the genre. Doug Miller – the primary vocalist, guitarist, and mastermind of Blanket – and partners in crime Stephanie Noble, Paul Blomquist, and Kim Murray have begun to craft dissonance into a science. I must say that the juxtaposition of these vocal stylings with the hook-filled progressions do prod me in those places where I like it. At least most of the time.

The drone of the vocal delivery can become a tad monotonous, but the lyrical compositions are actually quite compelling. The first verse in “Minor Changes” sets up what begins as an almost satiric commentary on self-esteem but ends up closer to a nauseating suicide attempt: “Give me a body that I can live with after a shower in front of the mirror in the bathroom light.” Not quite dissertation material, but perhaps the subject of an expanded thesis.

It’s the instrumentation and arrangement that really keep this work afloat, though. Surprises like the sloppy overdriven lead near the end of “Train-Wrecks” are the nice touches that you’d expect Neil Young or bald-headed freaks named Billy to pull out. Or take “Movie After Movie … .” If decisions were left to less skilled sonic choreographers, this piece would be two okay songs. Instead, it maintains the gentle repetition of a Gilmour-esque riff throughout, and then folds in a rather abrasive chorus, which prepares the listener for the oddly reassuring finish.

There is a distinct swelling overtone on the album, usually accomplished with bare-boned introductions working themselves into irritated choruses that wash into bitter, syrupy resolutions.

The production is well-suited to the genre. This is due, in no small part, to the efforts of Low’s Alan Sparhawk. As Miller put it in an August 2001 interview, Actors & Actresses definitely has a bit more “frosting.” Sparhawk, The Winter Blanket’s (or should I say Miller’s?) mentor if not deity, provides the recording and production duties and acts as a guest musician on both of Blanket’s outings, but on Actors & Actresses, it’s The Winter Blanket’s newfound intentions of vigor that really begin to show.

Now let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here, curious fun-lovers. This is not the music you’ll hear the next time you’re absorbing commercial drivel. Nor is it fare for all well-intentioned, dedicated listeners. For you, purchasing this album is an investment in a good sedative. But there is much to be said and shared among the rest of us about The Winter Blanket’s product, from inception to execution. It would be a wise choice to catch these homegrown heroes live the next time it’s an option. Oh … and don’t forget the morphine drip.

The Winter Blanket will hold a CD-release party on January 26 at the Chai Café in Moline. Seth Knapper and The Rivulets will open.

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