The song that opens “Ladders Out of Purgatory,” the new album from the Blessed Broke, is a haunting dirge called “The Stain.”
Over a sparse bed of acoustic and slide guitar and the low-pulse throb of a bass and beat of a drum, Brian Frame sings in a world-weary voice:
“We were all waiting in line to get a little blood on our hands / But you missed all the signs and take a look now at where you stand. You know well that it’s too late to give any other refrain / We have gone down to find something that might remove that stain.”
The song moves slowly and eerily, like a fog over a bog, yet Frame’s voice gives it gravity. “The Stain” is one of eight songs on “Purgatory,” and it’s one of Frame’s favorites, as much for the way it was rendered in the studio.
“When we heard it played back, it wasn’t what we heard when we recorded it,” Frame said. “There’s more space in that song than others.”
“It was a real surprise for us,” said Matt Richey, the band’s drummer (and also a member of the Dead Voices and Grisly Hand). “Something about the vocal was really interesting. Everyone’s ears perked up when we heard the playback. It wasn’t what we were used to hearing.”
Saturday night at the RecordBar, the Blessed Broke will celebrate the release of “Purgatory,” the follow-up to its self-titled debut, released in 2009. “Purgatory” is filled with stark moods and introspective lyrics that address specific themes but in general terms.
“There are songs about mortality, and there’s some relationship talk,” Frame said, “and some themes about sin and redemption. But I try to write in a way that isn’t personal, so whatever I’ve drawn from can be recognized by anyone.”
Frame started the band with guitarist Andrew Luker back in 2006, and for a while the lineup changed regularly. At one point, it was an acoustic three-piece: guitar, Dobro and banjo. Eventually, he incorporated a rhythm section and kept a lineup in place long enough to record “Blessed Broke.” Like “Purgatory,” it reflects the songwriters who have influenced Frame’s style: Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen.
In early 2011, the lineup changed again, and Frame was looking for a new rhythm section. That’s when he approached Richey.
“I was in Dead Voices and we’d played a few shows with Blessed Broke, and there was already a good relationship between the bands,” Richey said. “The rhythm section was kind of on the way out, and Brian slipped me a copy of the record and asked if I wanted to do it. I’d always liked the band and his songs. It was a pretty natural thing, very casual. I just started showing up at practice.”
And when he started looking for a bass player, Frame got some unexpected interest from Betse Ellis, best known for singing, songwriting and playing fiddle with the Wilders. Ellis was a fledgling bass player at the time. But Frame was more than willing to give her a chance.
“Betse and I had done some shows together as a duo, playing covers and originals and traditionals,” Frame said. “She taught me things about singing and harmonies and performance.
“When I first started looking for a bass player she was busy with the Wilders. When they became inactive, it came up again and she said she’d always wanted to play bass in a band. I never doubted her at all, not that it’s easy to play bass, but because she’s so capable.”
Ellis said it the adjustment to her new role was significant.
“My usual role as fiddler is a wholly different one,” she said. “The fiddle plays a melodic part and accenting rhythmic elements, too, of course. The fiddle doesn’t have to hold down the beat, the root of the chord, like the bass does.
“I’d say I’m more comfortable now with the bass, and the whole band has been patient with me being the one who knows their instrument the least. That said, I love playing bass, being part of the rhythm section, on the ground level of a band as opposed to the top notes.
“There’s that whole thing too: playing a totally electric instrument as opposed to a fiddle with a pickup. It’s not an overstatement to call this a brave new world for me. Learning to use an amp without overplaying an instrument: that’s something lots of people got a handle on when they were teenagers. I’m a bit of a late bloomer.”
In October 2012, Frame had assembled the ideal band to start recording “Purgatory”: Luker, Richey, Ellis and Josh Mobley on keyboards. The record was recorded in three days. Frame spent one of those days laying down the tracks he recorded solo with guitar. The rest of the album was recorded mostly live. And sparingly.
“I knew from the start I wanted solo material on it,” Frame said. “I play a lot of solo gigs, and I’m pretty satisfied with it. Plus, I like that format. The solo tracks provide an intimacy with the lyrics you don’t always get with the band. I wanted both.
“We played everything live. No scratch vocals. There were some overdubs, but mostly what you hear is what was recorded.”
“It’s a pretty naked album,” Richey said. “Not too many fixes. I loved the process, but you’ve got to be willing to own it and be satisfied with your preparation going in. It’s very straightforward — not perfect, but there’s a charm in that. A lot of our favorite records are like that: ‘Tonight’s the Night’ and ‘John Wesley Harding.’
The album’s title evokes the sounds and moods of the music within. It’s dark but there’s a sense of light on the horizon; it’s bleak but there’s a feeling of redemption in the air, even in the heavy lament “Helpless Heart,” one of Frame’s signature solo performances. Like much of “Purgatory,” it visits sentiments that render something indelible: a scar, a fracture, a stain.
The Blessed Broke will celebrate the vinyl release of “Ladders Out of Purgatory” Saturday at RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road. The Conquerors and the Dead Voices Trio also will perform. Admission to the 18-and-older show is $7. Showtime is 10 p.m.