The Moaners: Blackwing Yalobusha

[8 March 2007]

By Roger Holland

Songs of the South

Blackwing Yalobusha is the first really good record of 2007. It’s been a long time coming. Despite five albums of melancholic otherworldly charm and vivid Southern Gothic grotesqueries, Melissa Swingle’s previous band, Trailer Bride, never fully realised the vision that inspired it. And while the Moaners’ 2005 debut, Dark Snack, certainly ripped up plenty of shit and generally kicked serious posterior all over town, it was still more a promise of things to come than a fully rounded work. Blackwing Yalobusha, however, hits the spot.

Not to be confused with the Wreckers, the Moaners first met in 2002 when Trailer Bride shared a bill with Ed Crawford’s Grand National, who themselves should never be confused with the over-rated British ‘80s revivalists of the same name. Anyhoo, Swingle was much taken with Grand National’s drummer, Laura King. And vice versa. And why not? So the two swapped numbers, and came together many moons later to explore the possibilities presented by King’s spacious, but infinitely precise, drumming and Swingle’s inimitable singing, guitar, and—on occasion—mad musical saw skillz. Dark Snack, the first result of their collaboration, revealed almost no signs of the old Trailer Bride country noir, as the duo opted instead to rock the swamp blues in a thoroughly voodoo garage stylee. Blackwing Yalobusha pretty much picks up where Dark Snack left off.

Melissa Swingle opens “Yankee On My Shoulder” with a sustained power chord that’s immediately underpinned by King’s ever-precise drumming. As her first chord fades into decay, Swingle peels off a series of looping bottleneck blues guitar lines, and then, finally, she begins to sing.

“I’ve a Yankee on my shoulder, and an angel on my sleeve.
The Yankee says have another. The angel says you’d better leave.”
- “Yankee On My Shoulder”

God, I’ve missed this voice. All the Ds, it’s a dry, detached, deadpan drawl that comes in roughly equal measures of beauty and ... ahem ... could-care-less-ness. I often have absolutely no idea what Swingle is singing about, but it scarcely matters because her voice transcends her material to the extent that the only thing that matters is that she’s singing at all. Melissa Swingle has one of those voices you’re either going to love or hate. And here in Holland, Texas, we love her deeply. We love her guitar playing too. During a simple three-and-a-half minute story of Yankees, angels, and the apparently corrupt cops of Yalobusha County, Swingle moves from blues-sidewinding to the measured monotony of slow metal, and then on to a final series of extended solos that are all about the punk rock math guitar pieces bands like the Buzzcocks used to do so well. It’s another music in a different kitchen, right enough, effectively releasing the Moaners to explore and experiment as they see fit.

Accordingly, the brooding “Dreamin’ About Flyin’” starts with the bells of an old-fashioned alarm clock (“On no! Hit the snooze”), introduces a jazzy Doors vibe, builds it up with six string doodles, paints it with a sparing spirituality, and somehow makes the whole idea absolutely acceptable. “Foxy Brown” is a madcap tribute to the Brooklyn rapper, detailed with warbling bottleneck and relentless punk rock drums. “Brainwash” is an exuberant dissection of the economics of touring and two girls’ lifelong search for balanced books and a little self-respect. “French Song” is both hilarious and unashamedly sexual—and mostly French. “Poor Souls” is a sombre story of Saints, abandoned souls and Mississippi floods. And so on and so forth. Only the closing instrumental “Blackwing” with its inadvertent references to Led Zeppelin (“Tangerine” and “Dazed And Confused”!) is anything less than absolutely satisfying.

“No fear, no envy, no meanness, it’s a mantra we have between us”
- “Shrew”

After six strong but flawed attempts, Melissa Swingle has finally got her mixture right with Blackwing Yalobusha. Whether pedal-to-the-metal and balls-to-the-wall, or subdued and considered, Mississippi blues or punk rock, the Moaners illuminate her songs of the south with precisely the right combination of fierce intensity and shade. Sometimes her instantly recognisable tones and hypnotic melodies are shown through a hand-cut, stained glass darkly. At others, they’re left out in the hot sun to burn. Either way, Blackwing Yalobusha is a fabulous and compelling record, and yes, the first one of the year.

Oh, and did I mention that Swingle is a preacher’s daughter? How perfect is that?

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