Taking drummerless inspiration from old-time country music and the freedom to make craggy noise from indie-rock, the Bay Area’s U.S. Saucer — singer/bassist David Tholfsen, singer/guitarist Margaret Murray (also of SF Seals and the Zip Code Rapists spinoff, Three Doctors Band) and, moonlighting from Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Brian Hageman on guitar and viola — drowsily explores diverse shades of soft and loud, firm and flexible, tight and loose on My Company Is Misery. Despite fascinating passages of cagey, distorted electricity, the album’s predominant hue comes from skeins of nearly subliminal acoustic eloquence. If that suggests a ponderous artistry, Tholfsen’s melodramatic voice, which smacks of condescending irony, pretentious wordplay (“Foregone Hormone,” “Up Chuck,” couplets like “Granger monger glides on a pool/Of effluent/Red Granger hordes fluids/To all corners”) and the cow noises that gussy up a handsome, low-powered cover of Lowell George’s “Willin'” all serve to undercut the implicit seriousness, making the ultimate dichotomy of My Company Is Misery its bewildering intent.
The second album takes fewer fliers and is thus a lot easier to live with. With Hageman resting his viola, Tholfsen partially tames his mannered vocals on Tender Places Come From Nothing, testing a delivery that doesn’t scour the outback so hard; he occasionally organizes appealing harmonies with Murray. As she did the first time out, Murray offers a mournful lead vocal (on “His Room”); Hageman steps up to the mic as well, giving mostly spoken voice to his own atmospheric “Hell Rules.” The gently propulsive electric arrangements of originals, traditionals (an egregiously off-key “Silent Night”) and offbeat covers (the mock-Mexicana of Terry Gilkyson’s “Ride Away Vaquero,” “Hold on Dear Brother,” written by Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, who once played together in the Beach Boys) maintain a reliably desirable consistency, leaving Tholfsen’s two carefully noted solo turns — Tom T. Hall’s “I Love…” and a bizarre string-bass-plus-baritone/falsetto deconstruction of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving Her Again” — to carry the weirdness weight. File under unexplained phenomena.