[29 September 2011]
J.D. Wilkes is a man of many talents: He’s helmed the Legendary Shack Shakers for the last decade-and-a-half, played harmonica with the likes of Merle Haggard, and earned the title of Kentucky colonel. Apparently, though, he didn’t feel like he was busy enough already, so he went ahead and created the Dirt Daubers in 2009. It’s a project that satisfies Wilkes’ more traditionalist side; whereas the Legendary Shack Shakers deal more in psychobilly and punk-blues, the Dirt Daubers—Wilkes, his wife Jessica, and Shack Shakers standby Mark Robertson—stick to a more rootsy bluegrass sound.
On their new LP, Wake Up, Sinners, the trio deliver a lean collection of barnburners that couldn’t have come from anywhere but Wilkes’ Kentucky home. The sound is good ol’ American heartland folk, unpretentious and unrelenting. Much like some of the songs from The King Is Dead, the Decemberists’ folksy release earlier this year, the tunes here evoke a certain apocalyptic mood: When Wilkes sings, “You must be a lover of the Lord / Or you can’t go to heaven when you die” against a backdrop of galloping banjo and mandolin, it’s hard not to feel like the Four Horsemen are headed your way.
The closest comparison to Wake Up, Sinners I can pinpoint is Bruce Springsteen’s excellent foray into roots music, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Like We Shall Overcome, Wake Up, Sinners feels deliberately loose and relaxed, more like an impromptu jam session than a proper studio recording. In both cases, that’s a good thing. Listen to the tinny, distant quality of Wilkes’ harmonica solo at the beginning of the title track, or the way the room seems to breathe and pulse with the klezmer-inspired, accordion-led “Be Not Afraid”. The atmospherics on Wake Up, Sinners really help make the listening experience more visceral, an essential feel for music that’s so tied to live performance.
Of course, that wouldn’t matter if the band themselves didn’t sound great in the first place. Both Wilkeses are unique singers in their own right. Jessica is lithe but brassy, reserved for the most part; J.D. attacks his words with the abandon of a punk frontman. It’s truly impressive when they join forces with bassist Robertson and special guest percussionist Steve Latanation, filling the space with sound. Album opener “Wayfaring Stranger” opens a little sparsely, just some stompy percussion and a fierce banjo solo, before kicking in a few seconds later with harmonizing vocals, mandolin, bass, and guitar. When each of the band members is firing on all cylinders, the results are exhilarating.
Wake Up, Sinners clocks in at a taut 27 minutes, which means that the Dirt Daubers never wear out their welcome. The album ends with a strange music-box rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home”, full of ambience and dread, which serves as an intriguing bookend after a half-hour of nonstop locomotion. It kind of makes you wonder if the band has some other, unexpected tricks up its sleeve. Is there a chance that such a staunchly old-fashioned band could take steps in an experimental direction on their next release? It’s hard to say, but for now, Wake Up, Sinners is a hell of a ride.