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

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Recording review - Lonesome Shack, More Primative (2014)

Evocative and restless, simplicity offers a rich palette

The guitar strings pop and tick like a cooling engine, hinting at long drives and endless roaming. The smell of hot blacktop seems to hang in the background of each of Lonesome Shack's heavy blues cuts on More Primitive, along with an acrid hint of Southern pine. There's no question that the Seattle trio is a blues revival group; you can hear their reverence for classic moans and foot stomping grooves. While they've clearly listened to their share of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Slim Harpo, you can hear the influence of follow-on interpreters like Duane Allman, Billy Gibbons, and Jack White in the mix as well. But unlike the crowded room sound of the Allman Brothers or the electric burn of ZZ Top, Lonesome Shack emulates their bluesman heroes and locks into the simplicity of a shuffling guitar and wavery vocals. While they round out the sound with light bass and a bare-bones rhythm, each song falls into a hypnotic trance of restless guitar vamps.

More Primitive opens with their moody lead single, "Wrecks", which taps into the dark boogie beat of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillin'". The steady bass throb and unadorned drumbeat both stand back to give the moaning guitar and reedy vocals room to dance. The video dubs some feral dogs barking into the background, but the album version knows that those theatrical touches are unnecessary. The tempo builds and Ben Todd's playing is almost frantic as he and the band reach the end of their rope after they sing the final chorus, "Now she's gone/ So gone/ If only I could tell her how I feel." But it's too late for anything but the regret.

The title track is a great example of how Lonesome Shack can bottle up nervous tension. Kristian Garrard pits his kick drum against the snare and Luke Bergman's bass adds an implacable force. By contrast, Todd's vocal is defiantly casual, "All I want to do/ Is hammer and swing." The relentless repetition of the main groove perfectly supports the idea of wanting to live "more primitive." The tune ties in with the band's mythology, which is rooted in Todd's time living in the lonesome shack he built himself in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness.

Despite the grounded purity of Lonesome Shack's blues aesthetic, the band never falls into formulaic patterns. Part of this is because they harness adaptable vamps rather than a 12-bar structure. This another lesson they've learned at Hooker's feet and it means that the songs don't smear together into an undifferentiated mass. The beats vary and Todd changes up his delivery to connect to different facets of his personality. So, the trapped feel of "Medicine" is completely different than the matter-of-fact fatalism of "Trying To Forget". The last two tracks offer some bigger changes, with a stutterstep rocker ("Big Ditch") and a jazzy "Dazed and Confused"-style turn ("Evil"), but these songs still preserve the open sonic space that makes this such a strong album. It's the sound of bug zappers sparking on a sweltering summer night or the Sunday morning dew misting off the front porch rail. It's a mainline into introspective memory. It's exactly what Lonesome Shack claims, it's More Primitive.

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