Touring helped Winter Blanket find its voice. Now, the band members are out to refine it.
The band members recorded their first album, "Hopeless Lullaby," after only a few months together, playing only five or six live shows. Mostly, they just knew their shared influences, folk singers, slow, quiet indie bands and 1970s singer songwriters.
"We were relatively inexperienced. We knew how limited we were," said Doug Miller, singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Moline, Ill.-based quartet. Reached by phone on the last day of February, Miller was brushing his teeth, but stopped to talk about his band's evolution.
"We used a lot of reference points. That was the limit of our vocabulary: 'Let's do something like the guitar in this Nick Drake song.'"
But touring changed that, Miller said. The band ranged across the Midwest, and around the East Coast, and became more sophisticated as a musical unit. "After we played together 40 or 50 times on tour, we could speak in more intellectual terms, musically," Miller said.
Now, with a second album under their belts, Miller, drummer Paul Blomquist, multi-instrumentalist and singer Stephanie Davila and bassist Kim Murray of the Winter Blanket are going out on the road again, with a stop this time at Galaxy Hut on March 16. They play music often described as spare, quiet and delicate, influenced and produced by Minnesota minimalists Low.
But the second album sounds more like the Winter Blanket, and less like Low, Miller said. As the band members toured, they came into their own sound. "We had definite ideas when we went in. The first record, we recorded every song we had," he said.
"This one, we worked more toward an idea. Playing live gave us a chance to get more of our own identity," Miller said. "Nobody walks into the studio [for the first time] and says, 'Here's our identity.'"
<b>Friends in Low</b>
<bt>In fact, Low's Alan Sparhawk produced "Hopeless Lullaby" and "Actors and Actresses," Miller and company's second album. Low was an obvious influence, Miller said, but he and his bandmates also incorporated 1960s singer/songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Tim Buckley.
The resulting sound often gets called "Midwestern music," but Miller questions that label. "We don't know what that is," he said. "People draw the relation to Low; I think what we have in common is, we're both from towns that are kind of out there."
Moline, like Low's hometown of Duluth, is not quite in the orbit of big cities, Miller said, but is a town surrounded by the midwestern plains. "We're not close enough to Chicago to be accepted there. I think it's kind of an isolation thing," he said -- one of the only meanings he can find for "Midwestern music."
"But we're no more isolated than somebody in Maine or Montana."
<bt>The Winter Blanket is awash in influences, Miller said, aside from the slow-core indie rock roots of Low and the '60s and '70s intellectual singers. "All four of us listen to everything: jazz, old country. All of us have big music collections," he said. "I grew up in the '80s, so I listened to a lot of hair metal, but those aren't influences."
The sounds come from the more recent bands in the collection, but the lyrics recall older, folkier influences, and albums like Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" and Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark."
Song titles like Waiting for an Actress and Movie After Movie tip the hand on the second album's theme. On "Actors and Actresses," the lyrics center on the dramatic metaphor of the title, almost an expansion of the Bard's idea that "all the world's a stage."
In Movie After Movie, Miller tells a girlfriend, "You're just an actress, playing a part for me." On "Hang on to the Details," Miller and Davila chant "Stage fright, tonight," as a chorus to the song.
The framework of a love affair lent itself to songwriting, Miller said, but that was not the limit of the concept for the songs.
The ideas lurking in the album are typical of 20-somethings, he said. "We started to realize that getting out into the real world and the career world, people are rewarded more for how well they can act," he said, "than how sincere and honest they are. That's a paranoia: who's pretending? what do people want me to be?"
None of the band members entertain any illusions about the originality of the feeling. "Maybe it's a juvenile kind of concept, but everybody realizes that," he said. "We're not trying to sound pretentious, like we got all this while sitting around drinking tea."
Instead, as he wrote, he kept in mind a maxim from another musical forebear. Citing Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, Miller said: "People oftentimes forget, that everybody that buys records aren't English professors."