[2 June 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If there were ever a band put together to cover the Louvin Brothers, it is Drakkar Sauna. The Lawrence, Kansas duo has been putting out throwback Americana with uncanny vocal harmonies for a number of years now. And even if they didn’t wear their Louvin Brothers influence on their sleeves, even if they didn’t take the opportunity on War and Tornadoes to cover nine of Charlie and Ira’s songs, you couldn’t help but make the connection between the two. Drakkar Sauna fit well into the tradition of country duos for their stripped down sound, their crystal clear singing, and the bare honest joy with which they play.
And, in terms of paying tribute to the Louvins, War and Tornadoes does not disappoint. Nearly 70 years after the brothers played their first show, it is hard to believe that their sound would not only last but have an influence as wide as it does, and Drakkar Sauna does their best to capture that influential sound. Right from the outset, on “Tiny Broken Heart”, the threadbare country tune even sounds like it was recorded long ago, or in the back of a barn. There’s a nice, spacious echo around these recordings that makes them sound more immediate. If the simple, dead-on flourishes of violin and mandolin over the duo’s acoustic guitars, not to mention the sweet lilt of their vocals, didn’t give these songs enough authenticity, then the sheer atmosphere of these recordings could carry the Louvins’ torch all on its own.
The band also smartly avoids resting solely on the Louvins’ gospel songs. While there are plenty here, it is nice to see new renditions of “Don’t Laugh”—which is as strong a country heartache song as anything Buck Owens wrote—and the equally great “When I Stop Dreaming”. It shows the brothers’ variety of talents, which sometimes go underappreciated in the wake of their huge collection of gospel songs, and major markers in their career like the infamous cover art on the Satan is Real album.
Still, you can’t honor the Louvins without honoring their faith songs, and Drakkar Sauna cover a lot of ground with the gospel songs they choose here. There is the joyful “River of Jordan”, delivered with as much verve as Ira and Charlie put behind it. “The Family Who Prays” is a little more cautionary, where the Louvins assure us that if we pray as a family we will stay together. The band here puts just enough sorrowful lilt into the vocals to make it sound as much as a warning as a celebration of togetherness. And “The Weapon of Prayer” is the song that translates most to current day, and comes across as downright chilling, as the duo sings about praying for our troops as a job we must perform. “You don’t have to be a soldier in a uniform, to be of service over there”, the band sings, and in the light of current events, the meaning can’t help but apply to our current war. But also alarming, though perhaps not surprising, is the echoing of sadly typical war sentiments. In the Louvins’ song, our troops are doing the right thing, fighting and dying with pure hearts, and it is our duty to support them with prayer. Drakkar Sauna makes no overt nod to current events, and plays this cover as straight as any other on the record, and just by doing that they make the song all the more affecting both in its own context and in the context of the conflict in Iraq.
But, with the exception of that song, these tracks do little more than pay homage. These are faithful covers done by a band in tribute to their heroes. And there isn’t another band that could do them as well as Drakkar Sauna. That much is clear. But what isn’t clear is why they picked these songs. Or how they feel about them and how they affect the Drakkar Sauna sound. There isn’t an overarching theme to the album that ties the songs together, and there is hardly any deviation from the original compositions.
None of this makes the album less enjoyable song to song, but it does make for an album that adds up to less than it should. Faithful, well-executed covers do make for a good album, but this short burst of Americana falls short of being memorable. With no new context to put these songs in, and with the band putting little to no new elements in their covers, you might be left wondering why you didn’t just pick up a Louvin Brothers album in the first place. That notion should speak kindly of Drakkar Sauna’s proficiency, but mere proficiency isn’t always enough to make a pleasant album something greater.