The Lions Rampant have been on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster lately, one that has weaved in and out of the recording/ release process of the new EP. Their drummer, Alex Bauer, has been dealing with a cancer diagnosis. The group members signed up ace skinsman Keith Fox for the CD, with hopes that Bauer will one day return (he has been able to do one show with the band since chemo).
Play Rock N Roll couldn't be better titled. The Lions Rampant sound is R&R at its most raw and impulsive, but it's by no means Slop Rock. If you need a genre, this one fits in the "Garage Rock" bin, but the songs are crisply melodic and wildly soulful. The players -- singer/guitarist Stuart MacKenzie and bassist Paul Bunyan (also of The Sheds) -- and their guests (Amy Jo and Reuben Glaser from Viva La Foxx, among others) dig deep into the dirty, Blues-on-fire groove and inhabit the songs, which are tightly-knitted, belying Garage Rock's rep for being messy. The Lions write, essentially, Pop songs and drench them in their swampy, moldy aura. MacKenzie's guitar sound is perfect for the songs; the tone and the vocals recall Mudhoney at the height of their power.
It's hard to be distinct in a field where everyone sounds like they're trying to replicate records from 40 years ago. But the Lions' have an energized yet graceful and more compact vision, and that makes Play Rock N Roll stand out like a flower blossoming from a sidewalk crack.
'Time's' of the Essence
Speaking of musical genres that are hard to be original within, the Blues could be the biggest form where that issue arises. If you push the formula too much, you lose purists, who are the music's biggest supporters. If you don't try anything remotely new, you might get stuck playing "Mustang Sally" every Tuesday night at some hotel lounge.
Acoustic Blues duo 46 Long aren't reinventing the proverbial wheel by any means, but their presentation -- acoustic guitar, vocals and harmonica, sparse percussion -- has a natural, bare vibe that is incredibly magnetic to the ears. Acoustic Blues players might be a dime a dozen, but the strong songcraft and singer/harpist Blake Taylor's unique playing style (he uses the harmonica as both a rhythm and lead instrument) give them an edge over the competition.
The bulk of the twosome's new album, Time's Right, is made up of original songs by Taylor and singer/acoustic guitarist Jonathan Reynolds, though they put thier spin on a few traditional songs as well (including an especially impressive "Death Letter"). There's a subtle diversity between the tracks, but not necessarily in the "This is Delta Blues; This is Chicago Blues; etc." whiplash manner their peers prefer. Not that they don't touch on all of that -- it's just not as "cut and dry."
Their take on Bukka White's "Aberdeen" keeps it in the Delta, but Reynolds' percussive playing and Taylor's train-chug blowing give it a different perspective. "My Baby's Away" features deep croons (a la Elvis) and slides on Reynolds' jazzier-than-usual strums. It's probably the most "accessible" tracl (and kind of reminds me of local rockers Buckra in velvet-lounge mode). With "East 13," Taylor sings of his hometown. inspired by the "riots" of 2001. It's a great slice of Urban Americana, without being judgmental. It's presented as part requiem/part short-storytelling and it's very effective.
On the downside, the recording quality is too undercooked. The band's format is great because nothing gets lost in the mix and you can connect with a song easier. But the vocals, in particular, sound muffled, as if they were recorded in a shoebox. Also, the band falls back on "woman done left me"-type lyrics too often. They show that they can rise above that on many of the other songs, but on cuts like "Shame on Me," they can't resist rote lines like "Fooled me once, shame on you/This time shame on me" and "When I first met you baby/It was late at night/You looked so good/And you felt so right." After the powerful words of "East 13," it's harder to take because you know they're capable of so much more.
There are those who think that middle-class whiteys have no right to sing the Blues. But 46 Long are less like Blues tourists and more like commentators, writing about different "bluesy" situations that are universal. The writing works so well with the minimalist motif, it doesn't seem that minimal at all.
The duo celebrates the new album's release Wednesday at Arnold's. The fun starts at 7 p.m. (myspace.com/46long)
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