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“I just saw a guitar/drums duo rip through a ten-minute ‘Vampire Blues’ and it was actually good” was what I texted my friend after seeing Illiterate Light open for Rayland Baxter back in January. Guitarist Jeff Gorman and drummer Jake Cochran brought the near-empty room through an earnest improvisational odyssey that night, treating each note and each change like it was the most important thing in the world. It was one of those rare, revelatory musical moments that only happen to you by chance—and make you nervous for what’s going to happen when that energy gets controlled by a studio.
Luckily, Illiterate Light’s self-titled debut has everything that makes the duo’s live sound so interesting. While there’s some extra stuff going on, namely some piano parts and synthesizers on select tracks, Cochran and Gorman seem to have used their studio time to reproduce the most feasible version of the sound that’s made them a thrilling live act.
In spite of their duo format, the record inspires more comparisons to classic rock acts than it does to indie guitar/drum duos like The White Stripes or The Black Keys. Wielding a sound that’s something like Neil Young and Jimmy Page starting up a surf/garage rock band, Illiterate Light take us through a collection of functional, sometimes exhilarating, rock tunes.
In some ways, it’s nostalgic. The chorus on “Carolina Lorelai” sounds like a fuzzier, sped-up version of The Beatles’ “From Me To You.” “Sometimes Love Takes So Long” feels like a throwback to seventies folk rock. “I Wanna Leave America” namechecks Neil Young and Watergate. If someone told me they had unearthed this album from forty years ago, I would not have been that surprised.
Still, Illiterate Light is not directly replicating anything. The duo format has inherent restrictions that the band uses to their advantage to steer clear of most retrospective rock clichés. From “In The Ground,” the high energy opener, it’s clear that drummer Cochran has a much more melodic drumming style than most, contributing to the forward momentum of the song that would interrupt the flow of a larger ensemble. More of this interplay can be found in many of the group’s higher energy tracks, like “Better Than I Used To” and the coda to album closer “American Boy.”
This musical relationship feels less reciprocal on the slower-tempo songs, such as the still-charming “Existential Crisis” or “Vacant Lover,” which relies on a monotone vocal delivery to get its point across in a way that’s interesting the first time you hear it and worth skipping on subsequent listens. Still, the band is able to make up for the diminished Magnificent Duo Magic on the slower tracks with clever songwriting and tight harmony, the two pillars that keep the likes of “Without Walls” and “I Wanna Leave America” interesting.
Illiterate Light wears their influences on their sleeves, but not in a way that’s exhausting. They’re not trying to emulate anyone. They have their own aesthetic that’s driven by their instrumental interplay and creative take on traditional songwriting forms. Their on-stage enthusiasm and earnest performances show us that they’re in it for real, but the album shows that they have the chops to bring in a broader swath of listeners outside of cold, dark, mostly empty venues.
Notable Tracks: “American Boy” | "Better Than I Used To" | “Carolina Lorelai” | "Existential Crisis"