[14 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer is a most unusual name, and perhaps even more so for a blues-based outfit. However, the only thing getting murdered is that axe: the guitar, and in a good way. This is a Canadian West Coast outfit that consists of Shawn “The Harpoonist” Hall and Matthew “The Axe Murderer” Rogers and, man, can they shred. However, their third album, A Real Fine Mess is actually more blues pop-rock than pure blues, and has moments of soul music, courtesy of backup female singers. Blues purists may snivel their nose at this sort of stuff, but A Real Fine Mess is a burning, energetic album wall to wall with material that will lodge deep inside your head. This will probably be the duo’s breakout album, and, according to the publicist I conversed with, they absolutely kill live. I would believe it because the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer bring an off-the-floor kind of feel to the album, while polishing down the rough edges. This is an album that’s honed for pure pop perfection. It’s a real blues kitchen with all sorts of ingredients in the pan.
What makes this album so refreshing is that it doesn’t strictly adhere to a standard blues formula all the time. “Feel Me Now” is an outright soul number with a bouncy piano riff, and it sort of reminds me, a little bit, like something from the ‘70s Frankie Valli songbook, buoyed in part by some stunning falsetto vocals. It’s probably the real highlight of the album, and there’s nothing really remotely bluesy about it, save perhaps for the song’s intro, which features blistering harmonica playing. “My Paradise”, meanwhile, sounds a little like the old rock chestnut “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, just again with more of a soul edge – I guess making it nestle a lot closer to the Tina Turner cover version. There’s also a funky synth breakdown that lasts for about four bars that’s quite something too, and you wish that the group rode that line a little more. On the other hand, “Sweat This Pain” is a funky little rock ditty, and it seems a bit Danko Jones-ish. I dare you to not tap your toe to this. I even hear a little bit of Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” in the track, too. “Mama’s in the Backseat” is a bit of a rockabilly number, and is absolutely scorching when the harmonica and fuzzy guitars kick in. And what writer could ignore album closer “A Real Fine Noise”, which it is – it feels a lot like ‘70s AM gold, and is another example of stellar songwriting with a midsection that even sounds remotely John Lennon-ish.
However, there’s plenty of good ol’ fashioned blues for those who like that sort of thing. The album opens with a trifecta of bluesy numbers, from the Rolling Stones-baiting “Black and Blue”, which features some pretty nimble guitar playing, to the slow burning “Do Whatcha”, which has some mean harmonica, to the poppy and infectious “Tea for Two”. Elsewhere, “Cry a Little” is a much more standard blues number with a shuffling beat, and dang if that harmonica playing doesn’t make the song. “Act Your Age” is a rollicking number, kept afloat by a thudding beat and sweet female backing vocals. “In and Out of Love” has a shuffling country rock feel to it, but it’s peppered by that strong harmonica playing by Hall, it turns out, and there’s no surprise that he was nominated for Harmonica Player of the Year at the Maple Blues Awards last year. So there’s plenty for those who are more traditionalists to a blues approach, but there’s also more poppy numbers for those who want to make the blues more accessible to them.
If anything, the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer will garner comparisons to the Black Keys, though the former isn’t really as garage based as the latter. A Real Fine Mess is a slick, radio-friendly production. It’s essentially a musician’s and songwriter’s showcase of what can be accomplished with an arsenal of great songs that run the gamut of a variety of styles and feels. It’s also a very crowd pleasing album, and you listen to this and can almost close your eyes and hear this duo playing live in front of you. Whatever energy this group brings the blues festival stages and clubs is evident throughout A Real Fine Mess and it is hardly a mess at all. This is a streamlined collection of a standard sound with some sonic detours into pop territory, and it draws inspiration from both the classic and the contemporary styles of blues. There’s even a song on this record called “Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To”. This album has fourteen examples that, maybe, sometimes they do. In the end, A Real Fine Mess is stand-up stuff, and the group has a bracing challenge ahead of them following up this exemplary act.