Assembled only over the last year, Chapel Hill's Drughorse Collective—a dozen or so local vets and associates that band together as Max Indian, The Tomahawks, The Sundowners and several other affiliated acts—has quickly become the area's most important creative musical association since the Justus League. As members bound from one project to another, the crew's given rise to a seemingly endless string of incestuous collaborations. Most of them have been pretty great.
Drughorse One—a six-song EP split evenly among the collective's vintage pop-rock flagship Max Indian, old-soul singer-songwriter Ryan Gustafson and the relatively embryonic Light Pines—is the first release officially marked with the Drughorse insignia. Stamped as well by James Wallace's trademark hazy production, the disc's cohesive feel also stems from a shared retro affinity.
Max Indian is in fine form on "Never and Always," as Carter Gaj's songwriting continues to feel so familiar that you'll swear you've heard it before (and maybe you have, if you've seen Gaj and company play it live over the past few months). The lumbering pop nugget is soaked in vintage Hammond swirls, while the guitars that are typically center stage in the group's instrumentation are relegated instead to an understated support role. "Dark of Night" dabbles in atmospherics, revealing even more variation on the customary Max Indian sound. A straight piano progression drives the melodic verses, though the psychedelic bridge blooms with strings and trippy synthesizer. The rhythm-centric track also features drummer Wallace taking his first turn on lead vocals with Max Indian. His delivery, however, doesn't differ much from Gaj's insouciant style.
With a healthy dose of organ complementing the bluesy guitar licks, classic rock and Americana tinge the loose chug of Ryan Gustafson's "Heaven." He gets existential on the insistent tune. Given the simple, carefree chorus and the blithe, Beatles-esque layers of la-las, you might miss the meaning. "Desert" digs into the meaning of it all, too, with the languid pace of its banjo plucks and acoustic strums matching the lonesomeness in his voice.
Clocking in at just over a combined five minutes, The Light Pines' two contributions—both of which were included on the band's overlooked debut—are barely more than an appetizer for the group's sizable abilities. While it will be hard for the Pines to shake their association with The Love Language—until recently, both bands shared most of their members, though the Pines lay largely dormant—bassist Josh Pope succeeds in staking out some new ground. Sure, the Technicolor guitars that burst out of lo-fi clatter on "Climbing Towards You" won't stop comparisons, but its churning rhythm and dreamy keys set the song apart from one of Stu McLamb's creations. Kate Thompson adds big, glossy synth to the low rumble of Tom Simpson's drums on "White Forest," creating shadowy, post-punk tension.
The record's title, One, implies that there are more of these splits to come from the Drughorse crew. Good news: Besides breaking The Light Pines' mostly ignored debut to a wider audience, this premiere split should also appease those aching for more of the classic Drughorse sound, while offering up an occasional change of pace. If nothing else, Drughorse One demands one thing from unacquainted Triangle ears: Listen up now.
Max Indian, Ryan Gustafson and The Light Pines play a Drughorse One release party Friday, March 26 at Local 506. Tickets are $7 and the show begins at 9:30 p.m.