Take a moment to reflect on the many contributions to human development made by our Scandinavian pals: Vikings, the Nobel Prize, socialized health care, Ingmar Bergman, The Doll House, Volvos, socialized job training, Saabs, Let the Right One In, Sibelius, Garmarna, socialized education, probably something involving reindeer, and in a peripheral way, Beowulf. More recently, those wacky Norse have brought us the Hives, the Raveonettes, Turbonegro, the Hellacopters, Shout Out Louds, and all manner of garage-band and blues-rock revivalists.
The latest of these is Anders Osborne, a Swede who transplanted himself to New Orleans in 1985, released a string of records for Shanachie and other labels, and who now produces such convincing blues-rock that he’s got himself signed to the Alligator label. American Patchwork is an altogether appropriate title for the album, as it is a grab-bag of styles that never quite coheres. Kickoff track “On the Road to Charlie Parker” (um—what?) introduces a gritty guitar line swimming in a sea of organ, but suffers from a poppy chorus that makes the down ‘n’ dirty vibe a whole lot cleaner-sounding than it should.
And so it goes. “Got Your Heart” flirts with a pop-reggae feel, while “Acapulco” strives for sensitive insight but settles for blandness. “I’ll change my clothes, change my name / Maybe I’ll find some land nobody has claimed”. Well good luck, down there in Acapulco—but we get the point. Trouble is, the point’s not a terribly interesting one, and the song’s vocals-up-front mix forces us to pay attention.
Osborne is a hell of a lot more fun when playing in the mud, generating the bulldozer riffs of “Darkness at the Bottom” and “Killing Each Other”, using the strident nasal wail of his guitar solos as an effective foil against the thick bass and chirping keyboards, mixing it all into a gumbo of thrashing bluesy squall. At six minutes, “Darkness at the Bottom” is the record’s longest track and its best; arriving midway through, it serves as the centerpiece of the album. It is here that Osborne flexes his six-string muscles the most, and one wishes it would just go on and on. “Killing Each Other”, with its chanted chorus, carries similar weight through trance-inducing, head-bobbing repetition. It’s not entirely clear what the song is about, but it certainly seems to be about something.
Sometimes a record is criticized for being too consistent, too one-note. The listener says, “Sure, the band can do the sad/slow/rocker/angry/whatever thing really well, but is that all they can do?” Sometimes, though, there’s an advantage to recognizing what one does best. Osborne is a guitar slinger, as evidenced by his hypnotic riffs and scorching leads; even the badass photo on the front of the CD shouts as much. There’s nothing wrong with playing to one’s strengths—just ask Johnny Winter—which in this case would mean laying off the ballads a while.
Unfortunately, variety was apparently the watchword in the studio, and the second half of the record is as much of a mishmash as the first. “Standing With Angels” is a semi-ballad that lasts far too long and puts more weight on Osborne’s not-so-strong vocals than it should, while “Love Is Taking Its Toll” swings the pendulum back to the kind of distorted, riff-heavy rock that is better suited to his skills. “I’m lovesick and sick of love too”, is a memorable line in a record that does not have a great many of them. “Call on Me” ends the record on a sweet acoustic note. As a send-off, it’s perfectly pleasant; it’s just a shame that we didn’t need to wade through a good bit more raunch before we got there.