[24 August 2011]
Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle know that if you don’t grow, you simply grow old, hence the strides the pair take on their second offering for the Telarc label. What’s perhaps most remarkable about Just a Dream is the manner in which the Wichita, Kansas-based duo—augmented here by drummer Brad Horner, who has since left the band—fuse not only their influences with their own vision of roots music but how they fuse their present so seamlessly to their past.
From the beginning, Moreland and Arbuckle have always been more than a blues band; their earliest live gigs drew as much from the North Mississippi Allstars as from Mississippi Fred McDowell, as much from Gov’t Mule as from R.L. Burnside, as much from the blues itself as from R&B and classic rock ‘n’ roll. All those elements remain intact here, while others have found their way into the sonic stew.
The opening “Brown Bomber” is the sound of roots enthusiasts who are well aware of ‘90s rock radio and who know that once upon a time Black Sabbath was a blues band called Earth. In short, it’s heavy and melodic, as swift and certain in its seek-and-destroy mission as a missile piercing a graphene skirt. Moreland’s guitar tone has never been more fluid, oozing from the speakers like the slow and seductive speech of a summer afternoon in Georgia, as it is not just there but through most of the album.
It’s this heavy and serious vibe that prevails through much of Just a Dream, whether the first single, “Purgatory”, the slow and stomping “Travel Every Mile”, and the Physical Graffiti-feeling “Troll” or “So Low”, a track highly familiar to longtime M&A fans that receives its definitive studio reading here. While that vibe dominates, there are moments that are perhaps less intense but nevertheless necessary for their more uplifting sounds and sentiments. The titular cut is a prime example—with a cosmos-bound chorus that would make the Black Crowes either proud or jealous, it could easily be the track that lands the group serious and sustained airplay. (Why it wasn’t chosen as the first single is one of those things that baffles and boggles.)
The ballad-ish “Shadow Never Changes” is a welcome surprise, as is the cover of the Tom Waits classic “Heartattack and Vine” (a longtime live favorite) and the chugging, country-inflected (and Steve Cropper penned) closer, “White Lightinin’”; it’s that number that caps off what is undoubtedly the best Moreland and Arbuckle album to date and what verges very, very close to being a career-defining release. (Only “Gypsy Violin” disappoints, and one wonders what on earth possessed the pair to include it here.)
But Moreland and Arbuckle have always shown that their best work is still ahead of them—a good problem to have, especially considering that the musical partners have now made a half-dozen records together, a point at which many bands are beginning not only to repeat themselves but also beginning to sound beaten, battered and ready to call it a day. That’s not the case here, and that’s cause for M&A fans, both new and old, to rejoice.