Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle have been making consistently strong records for over a decade now. Influenced as much by the hill country sounds of Junior Kimbrough as the dirt floor inflections of Gov’t Mule and early Black Keys, the band has created a stubbornly idiosyncratic musical blend that defies easy categorization. It has the grit and history of blues, replete with murder ballads, open tunings, slides, mouth harp, and a predilection for compositional forms that walk hand-in-hand with that most American idiom.
There’s an energy and sense of adventure that comes from the rock element of their sound. 7 Cities (2013) was a concept piece that detailed Coronado’s quest for gold. Jonny Lang probably wouldn’t try that and it’s hard to imagine Elvin Bishop teaming with producer Matt Bayles, whose previous credits included Isis, Minus the Bear and Mastodon. His return for Promised Land or Bust, the trio’s debut for Alligator Records, is welcome. Moreover, it doesn’t signal a retread of the last effort. Instead, the record highlights the trio’s ability to write and pick material that best illustrates its wide-ranging abilities.
Keep in mind that this is a band that once sold shirts that proudly proclaimed, “We’re Roots”! That declaration did more than describe a musical style. It also announced Moreland & Arbuckle as a band that never strayed far from home.
The 2008 release, 1861, took its title from the year that the band’s home base, Kansas, became a state. When the founding members found themselves without a drummer just before roadwork for 2011’s Just a Dream began, they hired longtime friend and fellow Wichitan Kendall Newby who has helped propel the dream to greater heights on the stage and in the studio. There’s a long-standing tendency for Arbuckle to sing about home and for the trio to dig into the Great Plains talent pool for outside material and for guests as well. All along, of course, there have been fantastic songs, a tradition that, thankfully, continues here.
The opening “Take Me with You (When You Go)” serves as a dynamic opener, spotlighting Moreland’s glimmering rhythm work. Newby’s insistent rhythms drive the tune with consistency and fire while Arbuckle demonstrates the scope of his vocal abilities as he emotes more deeply and passionately than in the past. Things fire up more fully via “Mean and Evil” which could have easily been ripped from one of the trio’s hot-burnt live sets. The energy is frenetic enough that it’s hard to imagine anyone could have contained it long enough to record. That it happens in the space of three minutes and 17 seconds make its all the more remarkable as it leaves the listener in a state of breathless anticipation.
Far from a two-track pony the band launches into Hannah”, an eerie love-and-murder piece penned by Oklahoma City-based writer Mike Hosty. Newby lays down Bonham-esque footwork upon which Moreland exceeds expectations with fretwork that accentuates the weighty lyrics and gravity of the narrative’s truths. Arbuckle’s delivery remains equally convincing as he reveals, the fate of the titular character with a chilling combination of shame and accomplishment. That track and several others are given an extra bite by Mark Foley’s bass and Scott Williams’ impressive but unobtrusive keyboards. Their presence is notable but not distracting, speaking volumes about the abilities of the band’s core.
As a guitarist Moreland’s never been a slouch. His tones on 2010’s Flood alone suggest a man we’d be wise to listen to with a more attentive ear. But here his playing crackles with inventiveness, especially on the would-be hit “When the Lights Are Burning Low”. He digs deep into his trick bag for a lively rendering of Lee McBee’s “Woman Down in Arkansas” (which finds Arbuckle unleashing some major harp fury) and adds unpredictable depth to “Mount Comfort”.
Arbuckle has long excelled at melancholy and meditation and he doesn’t disappoint on either that tune or “Waco Avenue”, a short, beautifully-constructed ballad about his home during the band’s early days. It’s the story of dreamers dreaming and waiting for a future that has untold surprises and, no doubt, untold disappointments. Thankfully, the song ends before the singer has to experience any of those.
The singer has never sounded quite as in command of well-worn material as he does on Slim Harpo’s “King Bee”, delivering the lines as though they’re being welcomed into the world for the first time. Moreland joins in, unleashing lead figures that are, true to form, unexpected and smile-inducing. The closing “Why’d She Have to Go (And Let Me Down)” (one of two written by trio’s good friend Ryan Taylor of the under-heard Dallas/Forth Worth unit Oil Boom) seals the deal, fully convincing us of the trio’s wit, diversity, and overall commitment to music that elevates more than it depresses, impresses more than it disappoints and, in short, succeeds in giving the listener a good time.
It’s hard to predict what the future will bring for Moreland & Arbuckle. Perhaps there’ll be a long wished-for live album sometime soon or perhaps there’ll be a return to the acoustic form, something the group hasn’t visited in more than a decade. Whatever comes next, one can be certain it won’t be dull.
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