(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Recording review - Whiskey Blanket, From the Dead of Dark (2013)

Artistic risks pay off on this spaghetti Western concept album

Brothers and sisters, would you willingly throw away your crutches? The hip-hop band Whiskey Blanket has built a unique sound around their quirky mix of beatboxing, orchestral instruments, and atypical backing music.And it was just that gimmicky blend that initially hooked me to the group. Their newest album, From the Dead of Dark, shows off the band's self-confidence as they blithely discard two of those three elements: no rapid-fire beatbox rhythms and a complete absence of street-classical mashup grooves. With well-founded faith, they rely on their solid raps and musical vision to carry the album. Their last project, No Object (2010), offered a growth spurt of lyrical continuity and production over 2007's Credible Forces. But on their latest drop, they've raised their sights and created a concept album tied together with a pervasive musical thread while they continue to tap into a surprising set of genres for their backing tracks. Where No Object emphasized a jazzy feel along with the classical touches, From the Dead of Dark draws on spaghetti Westerns and Eastern European jazz elements for a cohesive sound.

Shadows fill the album, with moody music and horrorshow touches of zombies and ghouls. The embedded storyline -- three of the tracks are explicitly identified as chapter one, two, and three -- is oblique, but interesting. The first track, "The Story Unfolds (Ch. 1)", introduces a boy who becomes cynical about people and turns towards darkness. Several songs later, "Hell & High Water (Ch. 2)" tells the story of a woman who breaks her lover out of prison to save his life. Finally, "City of Shadows (Ch. 3)" rounds out the triptych with a tale of the zombie apocalypse where the hero dies, but passes on his torch to a mysterious, bloody "angel". The narrative thread may be hard to find, but musical motifs tie the pieces together, allowing the listener to draw their own connections between the three.

From the Dead of Dark stakes out its ground from the start. A simple piano vamps through the changes, ornamented with a whistled melody and light harmonica. "The Story Unfolds"? Well, it unfolds patiently as the band builds this into a full blown soundtrack layered with guitar, horns, and choral accompaniment. They drag the instrumental introduction out for almost two minutes before letting the lyrics drop:
We start life not knowing much,
Unaware of what it's like to be grown up
This story unfolds with a boy and his soul
And an idea that would play a poisonous role
Now he's not your typical archetype
Lost child, brought up on bibles and market hype
Nah, he's the antithesis of orthodox
Who's seen the dissonance of people livin' in Pandora's Box...
This opening is delivered loosely, rhymes slipping into place with just a little room to move. Once the rock beat kicks in, the lyrical flow picks up speed, jumping between the rappers and pulling the words into the beat.

The next track is more unsettling, starting with a trippy, back-masked loop before locking into steady beat with retro easy-listening vocal touches and a scratched and chopped musical track. The album really wakes up, though, on the Euro-jazz inspired "Blotto Nox". The rap revs up right out of the gate and never slows down. With a freestyle flow, each of the guys take their turn kicking the mic, chaining internal rhymes and overwhelming the ear. Gypsy violins and turntable scratches lay down a wonderfully exotic groove that provides all the syncopation and rhythmic complexity an emcee could ever need.

The next track, "Dinner With Ghouls", adds its own musical twist, blending early jazz with a bit of big band: "This is zombie surf-punk, hip Goth, Gypsy pop/ Indie rock, traded in the synth for a Lindy Hop". The delivery is slower paced, but that gives the audience more time to appreciate the clever phrases as they roll by. This song also features a sung chorus that contributes to the big band feel while it shows off the band's harmonies.

Next up, jam-folker Bonnie Paine (Elephant Revival) reprises her guest role from No Object to sing "Hell & High Water (Ch. 2)". The lonesome Western arrangement complements her sultry voice, which summons up the ghosts of missed opportunity with the tagline, "It's too late, too late, too late/ Now the deed is done." The band's artistic decision here is telling. From the Dead of Dark is indisputably a hip-hop album, full  of solid, textbook rapping, but although this track sets a hip-hop beat behind the moody music,  it lets Paine's singing take center stage. Surprises like this push out some boundaries, but that's not the band's end goal. Instead, it just flows out of their off-beat aesthetic of building interesting backing tracks and bringing them to the foreground.

Whiskey Blanket's creative risks were definitely worth the effort. From the Dead of Dark doesn't limp along without the band's crutches; it dances and breaks. Throughout it all, the boys show off their emcee skills. The chemistry between the three members offers plenty of change up, but their parts are carefully crafted to join in perfect balance. I'm still hoping for their classic stunts during the show, like Funny Biz's one-two beatbox-cello punch, but I'm happy to hear them develop their sound. This is a band that deserves much wider distribution.

For a taste of the dark, enjoy the album trailer.

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