Whitcomb's legacy

Feel the poetry rattling your bones
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  March 23, 2011

It is unlikely that James Whitcomb Riley, a turn-of-the-century poet for a short time considered the heir to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ever envisioned his work accompanied by music quite like this. The five-piece Whitcomb have taken not only his middle name, but his words as well, rearranging them on their debut release, Crown Park, and pairing them with a mathematical assault of notes and soaring vocals in the vein of Queens of the Stone Age.

There is no doubt, though, that Riley would approve. Though at times celebrated as a children's author, he was a dark and brooding and introspective dude, penning a number of odes to dead friends and ex-girlfriends with imagery that gives Poe a run for his money (he was devious, too, once trying to discredit a rival by ripping Poe off under a pseudonym and saying the other guy had done it — the plan backfired).

So, though he didn't arrange the words quite that way originally, he would surely approve of the elegant call and response that opens the emotionally devastating "Tempest": "Oh, woman/I should have strangled you."

Originally part of "On the Love of Intoxication as a Queen," wherein Riley laments a love lost, opining that he would have been better off killing her before she ripped his heart out, lead vocalist Brant Dadaleares boils the work down to its sharpest points, casting the barbs first gently, then forcefully, then in a mangled mess of distortion in a finish that allows only a "should have strangled you" to bubble to the surface of comprehension, backed by a maddened panting.

These bracket a searing guitar lead from Sean Libby, not super-fast metallic but ethereally psychedelic, that acts in counterpoint to a chugging background of six-note progressions, like love's passion floating over diabolical plotting.

There is certainly an art to the words Dadaleares chooses and how he strings them together. The process takes the words themselves and renders them like colors on a palette from which Dadaleares can brush on the canvas of the song. In this way purposely limits himself so as to free himself to focus on the delivery and cadence (Riley's fondness for iambic quadrameter makes for good lyrics).

In "Tempest," the result is particularly affecting, nearly impossible to listen to and not be moved in some way, to not think about love, hate, life, and death.

Which is sort of the way Dadaleares is in person. He's very penetrating. It's really hard to have a light conversation with him, just banter. And, yeah, that can be a little disconcerting if you're just trying to have a pint, in the same way Whitcomb's disc might not be the first thing you choose for the summer corporate outing, where small talk generally carries the day.

No, Whitcomb's album is for deep-think sessions. For getting stoned in a darkened dorm room. Maybe with a blacklight.

Ignore the lyrics entirely, if you want. Focus on Mark Sayer's drumming, which at times provides more melody than either of the guitars. His fill, like someone set off all the fireworks at once, in "The Bat" will whip your head around. Sayer's work is so much the heart of the song that when it drops away for a couple of measures it's like being dunked underwater and coming up gasping for air.

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  Topics: CD Reviews , Music, Poetry, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,  More more >
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