For what often feels like a straight-ahead indie rock band, Columbia's Dear Blanca can be difficult to pin down.
On early press releases, they were characterized as "Townes Van Zandt meets the Minutemen," as if they were some idiosyncratic blend of ruminative singer-songwriter folk and spastic, roiling funk-punk. From the very beginning, though, there was also a clear penchant for big guitar power-pop and garage-soul, for Dinosaur Jr-esque fire and Bright Eyes-style emotionalism. Raw and vibrant live, their first LP, 2013's Talker, was a heavy blend of their primal live show and chamber-music ornamentation. They are a band, in other words, that contains multitudes.
And if you ask frontman Dylan Dickerson, he shrugs off that early tag pretty easily.
"To think of Townes actually fronting the Minutemen — I would argue that might not actually sound very good," he points out. "But I love both of them, so I'll take it. Those styles are big parts of what brought me into playing music.
"I've always been drawn to energy in music, but I have a lot of respect for having an interesting take on pop sensibilities," he continues. "And then I like really quiet, lyric-driven songs, too."
Dear Blanca started out with Dickerson and drummer Marc Coty playing as a bare-bones duo, but added bassist Cameron Powell by the time they got around to their 2014 sophomore LP Pobrecito, on which sometimes-Blanca member Dayne Lee plays percussion and prominently sings backup. That album dropped the instrumental excess of their first effort with a tighter, more concise version of what the band had become.
Since then, the band has tried different things, including adding a second guitarist (Tyler Morris of ET Anderson) during the period they recorded I Don't Mean to Dwell, an EP produced by North Carolina indie-rock veteran Scott Solter (Two Gallants, Spoon, the Mountain Goats) and released earlier this year. They've since parted ways with Morris and added Secret Guest's Andrei Mihailovic on piano and guitar, a move which coincided with their new Ryan Wolfgang Zimmerman-helmed EP To Tell a Half-Truth.
The new effort has the band taking on quieter textures and Dickerson stretching his songwriting approach. The lyrics were pulled from and inspired by a collection of poems that bassist Cameron Powell's late uncle Scott Crane had penned shortly before he died, and they ruminated over heartbreak and longing in ways not totally dissimilar from the way previous Dear Blanca songs do. "Even before we recorded the songs for I Don't Mean to Dwell, we had been talking about the idea of making a record that used that as source material," says Dickerson. "All the songs are either adapted from it or directly inspired by it."
Although the commitment to posthumous collaboration is a new one for Dickerson, it's actually in keeping with his approach to writing songs. He's written songs based on friends' poems in the past as well as written around family members' dialogue to create striking lyrical situations.
"There are some lines that are almost verbatim the same, but a lot of it is my own writing in the midst of it, too. It's a neat little set of guidelines to put on yourself," he says. "I work well when I put a specific task at hand — a challenge, something I've never done before. I've written a lot of songs that way by just coming up with a little idea."
While past incarnations of the band have tended toward more raucous arrangements, the Dear Blanca we get on Half-Truth ambles a bit more. The opening half-time waltz "Preface – Changing Ribbons" and closing "Aftermath" are both built around prominent piano lines, a first for the group, and in between the only thing that summons the group's full strength is the lead single "Out of View." The move was a conscious decision, according to Dickerson, who wrote most of this record behind the keys rather than on guitar.
"I do feel like there's a big part of us that likes to write energetic, loud songs, but I know we can do that. I'm comfortable where I've grown on that," he admits. "We can play these songs live, but I tried not to think about that much when I was writing these songs."
And fittingly, even in a more contemplative setting, there's a spirit of restlessness that pervades Dear Blanca, both in the direct, almost confrontational singing style of Dickerson and the band's kinetic approach to arrangement as well in their constant evolution and willingness to try new things.
"Hyper isn't a bad way of describing me," Dickerson concludes. "I think a lot of my creative energy comes from just being a restless person."