One of the attractions of the stringband revolution (à là the Tricky Britches new album) is its ubiquity: Anyone in the genre can convene and put something pretty entertaining together in short order. It’s more the interpretation that matters than the material. Screw something up? That’s jazz. It happens.
Well, Whitcomb play stringed instruments (with a drum kit thrown in), and part of their appeal is that you couldn’t put together anything like it without hours and hours of practice. The material and the performance are of a piece, everything placed just so and meticulously machined. Screw something up? That’s a trainwreck. A flaw in the diamond.
So, it’s no coincidence that while Whitcomb produce more music for consumption on a yearly basis, it’s not a volume business. The four songs on the new The Conqueror EP are miniature works of their own, of radio length and ready for a part in the next dystopian thriller (they would have been perfect for Looper). The gift of James Whitcomb Riley’s Gothic verse keeps on giving, and vocalist Brant Dadaleares has lost no commitment in his devotion to bringing the man back to life.
It’s pretty rare you hear a singer quite this invested. His take on “Blind” is like musical Red Bull, and there are times it’s catchy as all hell. “Your pity is welcome to me,” Dadaleares allows, “but I have no need of it.”
This is the new rock, a moving forward of things. Along with bands like Queens of the Stone Age/Them Crooked Vultures and Kyuss, Whitcomb are trying to take traditional rock song form and cram twice as much inside. The real success comes in the touch, the ease with which they put together the 8th and 16th notes, guitarists Andy Beavis and Sean Libby with their continually fluttering left hands.
Just see what they do in the “Blind” video:
Mark Sayer is as musical as ever on the drums, highlighted by “Wrangle,” where we hear him hitting every note the guitars do, reminding you why drums should be precisely tuned, so as to ring out with clear notes. When Sayer lays into the double bass, stalling for guitar chords, it’s like watching the gears of a grandfather clock turn.
“To a Skull” is more delicate than you might expect, certainly more let’s-be-gentle than you’ve heard from them before. Considering the subject matter, it’s probably the starkest contrast here between the material and the mood, major chords and sunshine flowing throughout. By the finishing “over and over again” they’ve gone fully meta, the lyrics a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Finally, the EP’s title track is the most aggressive and active piece, with overtones of early Metallica in its straight-ahead attack, driven by Ryan Fleming’s pulsing bass. Sayer augments Dadaleares in the finish with muted screams. Our protagonist? “He plunges into the crimson sea” — because, why wouldn’t he?
By building on and effectively remixing the lyrics of a man who was known for capturing turn-of-the-century zeitgeist, who was a wildly popular traveling performer in his own right, who made his money with children’s poems, but finished his life writing nothing but eulogies for dying friends, Whitcomb adopt a timelessness of their own, finding themselves progressive as a result.
What’s old is new again.
The Conqueror | Released by Whitcomb | with Black Thai + Lord Fowl + Lord Earth | at Asylum, in Portland | May 11 | whitcomb-band.com