Let’s just get this fact out of the way now before this review goes any further. The Immortal Lee County Killers are going to be compared to the White Stripes, in this review and countless others. This has as much to do with the Stripes’ ubiquity as it does with the ILCK sound (and the fact that they’re also a duo). One spin of their newest release Love Is a Charm of Powerful Trouble and one would be hard-pressed to believe the Lee County, Alabama, duo of guitarist/vocalist Chetley Yz (nee Chet Weise) and drummer J.R.R. Token aren’t begging for a chance to kick Jack White’s red-jumpsuited ass.
Here’s how you can tell: Where Jack and Meg White have generally played the role of caretaker of the blues/punk hybrid aesthetic, ILCK are hell-bent on setting fire to that legacy. But they do it out of love. The duo has an undeniable sense of reverence to Delta blues; half of the album is devoted to covers of tunes originally penned by the likes of Willie Dixon and R.L. Burnside and the opening track is a blustering tribute to Robert Johnson. But that’s where the reverence ends. All the songs, covers and originals alike, are played with remarkable fury and abandon with a guitar tuned all the way down to the bowels of hell. (Yz plays both guitar and bass through separate amps, both of which are cranked all the way up.) Love Is a Charm of Powerful Trouble is easily the most unholy alliance of punk and blues to be released in 2003. And, yes, that’s a compliment.
“Robert Johnson” and “She’s Not Afraid of Anything Walking” are exercises in lo-fi fuzzed out blues squawk, with Yz’s hoarse vocals beseeching listeners to abandon hope all ye who enter. The album’s first cover, Willie Dixon’s lament “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind” serves as one of the album’s standout tracks, and it’s one that benefits from the duo’s decision not to turn the amps up to 11. It’s downright primordial in its execution and the tune wouldn’t sound out of place next to the Fairfield Four’s “Lonesome Valley” (off the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack). Soon after follows a cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Goin’ Down South”, which takes a moment to get on track but knocks you down once it does.
Sandwiched between these two gems is an original tune, “Shitcanned Again”, which, especially given its sequence on the album, counts as the album’s lone misstep. It’s a loud, angry blues explosion that falls on the stupid side of the line between clever and stupid. It’s the kind of song that even Blueshammer, the genre-mangling band in the movie Ghost World, would think twice about playing.
Fortunately, the rest of the album doesn’t fall into the traps of parody that “Shitcanned Again” dives headfirst into. The title track opens with a soundclip from blues legend Howlin’ Wolf that sums up ILCK’s approach to their music: “Anytime you thinkin’ evil, you thinkin’ ‘bout the blues.” (As if there’s any doubt about ILCK’s dedication to both evil and the blues, the album’s back cover depicts four hooded skeletons on horseback, invoking the South’s lynching-intensive heritage. Evil stuff, dude.) Meanwhile, “Truth through Sound” doesn’t divulge any truths, but its finds the band at their most carefree and it features a wicked slide guitar solo from Yz.
The album ends with four cover tunes, with the traditional “Don’t Nothing Hurt Me Like My Back and Side” and album closer “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today” (originally performed by Charles Tindley) the clear standouts. The former finds Yz offering up a cleaner guitar riff and a fun harmonica. It’s the album’s closest brush with ‘60s garage rock. Meanwhile, “...Heaven Today” is a hymn by this album’s standards. Sure it’s quiet, but it’s also one of the band’s truest moments. For a band that argues the notion of “truth through sound”, that’s saying something.
It remains to be seen if an audience accustomed to the White Stripes-brand of blues punk (which isn’t very punk, now that I think about it) will cotton to ILCK’s aggressive John Lee Hooker by way of Black Sabbath approach. But while purists may turn up their noses, more adventurous blues fans will find a refreshing take on the genre.