It’s tempting to want to force musical evolution in the sense that we’re all waiting for a band to come along that garners comparisons to no one. But as long as good music lasts, new artists will be inspired by it, even outright steal from it, and that’s not always a bad thing. Detroit’s Deadstring Brothers practically channel Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones to the point that it feels like either a sequel or a long-lost outtakes compilation. That kind of blatant devotion to a particular sound often draws sneers and contempt from the originality police, but today I have temporarily misplaced my badge. Starving Winter Report sounds fucking fantastic, its Jagger/Richards fixation a touching reminder of the overwhelming sacred position some of us hold for our favorite music.
Frontman Kurt Marschke has got his Mick down, all snarling, yearning, and rock and roll proselytizing. “Talkin’ Born Blues” provides the link between “Bitch” and Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. But despite the familiar terrain, the song remains compelling. Marschke’s dobro laughs like a hyena over a classic barroom rock arrangement of piano, Rhodes, and a propulsive rhythm section, “All this just to get backstage / To discover where the secret’s made”. “Lights Go Out” is a paean to hangovers, bar-fights, and a “backstabbing town”, romanticized as all get out with its slow-burning rhythm and blues and cooing backing vocals. This is country rock designed for lighter-waving even in the dankest of venues, and for riotous dancing even after one too many.
The chord progression on “Blindfolded” strays perilously close to faux-soul a la “Drops of Jupiter”, but Marschke’s vocal histrionics are injected with punk rock attitude instead of adult contemporary melisma, and keep the song closer to the ground. “Moonlight Only Knows” is a washboard/dobro/fiddle number befitting the band’s Bloodshot home, and is the clearest example of why the Deadstring Brothers have a sort of Midas touch—they are fully in control of their sound at all times. The band plays with precision, and wastes not a moment or note, even in the thickest arrangements. They’ve got a thorough grasp not only the spirit of their forebears, as on the Van Morrison-ish “All Over Now”, but the forebears of their forebears, the honky-tonk, blues, and pop foundations.
Throughout the record, Masha Marjieh’s vocals compliment Marshke’s perfectly, elevated way beyond traditional backing vocal status. Her harmonies provide necessary balance to the rampant testosterone-fueled rave-ups, taking an edge off of the natural cockiness. Without her, or Ross Westerbur’s spastic yet spot-on keyboards, a song like “Toe the Line” would be tired pomp and circumstance. With those vital elements included, the song hits at full force, evoking late night highway drives, dancing under dim streetlights, and gloriously hard times. In fact, the singing and playing are so fierce on Starving Winter Report as a whole, it’s a little bit exhausting. Few country-rock outfits as of late have been playing with this much passion and hunger, content instead to rest on more modest singer-songwriterly laurels. But even on the quieter tracks, the Deadstring Brothers play their guts out, as if the world is in mortal danger of losing “Dead Flowers” and “Gimme Shelter” to “Barbie Girl” and “Dumps Like a Truck”. Testify.