Luke Winslow-King furthers his explorations of pre-war American music on his latest for Bloodshot.
Never content to operate solely within a given style, Luke Winslow-King swings all over the pre-war map on his latest, Everlasting Arms, rooting himself primarily in the sounds of the South, often the Deep South and Delta area where he now makes his home, far from his native Michigan. With the title track, Winslow-King reestablishes the basic sonic template employed on both his Bloodshot debut and earlier releases: gently shuffling rhythm section heavy on the one and three, unhurried guitar and vocal work that betray his music school background, and generally good-time vibe.
Winslow-King excels in a certain pre-war style of pop music steeped in jazz and blues, channeling a very specific time and place and, when he strays slightly from this anachronistic formula, the results can be somewhat jarring. Where "Levee Man", with its New Orleans shuffle and jazz-tinged trumpet introduction, perfectly suits his established aesthetic and musical persona, the self-referential rave-up "Swing That Thing", complete with full drum kit and rocking guitar lines, is initially a welcome surprise and change in form. Coming as the second track on the album, however, its lyrical sparseness and reliance on repetition (the track’s title is intoned innumerable times) tends to drag the number down and, by song’s end, makes it feel much longer than it’s relatively short run time would indicate.
Fortunately this is but a minor misstep (if one could even venture to call it that) in an album full of charming, deceptively complex arrangements and chord progressions that hearken back to a freer, looser time in American popular song. Themes of love and wild ways crop up throughout, lyrically operating in the same vein as a well-researched period piece, careful with each detail yet functioning with the benefit of hindsight and, perhaps most significantly, the aid of modern technology.
While Winslow-King’s guitar playing is certainly up to the task, since he’s an exceptional slide player and equally adept at making it sing when called upon, his voice doesn’t always have in it the necessary heft required to carry off larger numbers like the hometown shout-out "Cadillac Slim". Capturing the tenor of the times and adopting the appropriate vocal affectations -- dropping g's here, freely employing ain’ts there -- his is a softer, thinner voice better suited to more obscured production. Where older microphones, the kind generally favored by Winslow-King in a live setting, tend to be more forgiving and affording a certain amount of amplified grit to the voice, modern recording equipment is less so and, given the crisp precision with which much of the album is recorded, these vocal shortfalls tend to be more front and center, ultimately sounding more like a talented musician playing dress up.
That said, songs like "The Crystal Water Springs" feature a more antiquated approach to the recording process that, unlike a number of the album’s earlier tracks, favors Winslow-King’s vocals while still maintaining his traditionalist aesthetic with its slide-blues, shuffling snare and double bass arrangement.
Throughout, Winslow-King’s partner in life and song, Esther Rose, sings sweetly, backing up her man here and there, especially in the more seemingly autobiographical numbers like "Swing That Thing". On "Wanton Way Of Loving", she’s placed front and center, with Winslow-King providing the call-and-response backing vocals. Like Winslow-King, hers is a voice that, while pleasant, lacks a certain heft that would better carry these songs. By no means bad, it’s simply a bit featherweight and is often overpowered by the music, creating a rather tenuous relationship between the two, one that feels as though it could very well fall apart at any moment if pushed too far in one direction or the other.
These are but minor quibbles with only a handful of tunes, however, as numbers like "Graveyard Blues" and "Last Night I Dreamed My Birthday" shine both vocally and, in the case of the latter, musically as Winslow-King takes an extended, scorching slide solo.
Still operating within a blues idiom, "Domino Sugar" toes the line of the similarly named Stones tune, chugging along at roughly the same pace, with similar guitar lines and structure. While perhaps not a direct homage, it certainly functions as a link to the influence pre-war music styles had on post-war rock ‘n’ roll and is one of the few moments on the album that finds itself firmly rooted musically in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
The closing one-two punch of "Home Blues" and "Traveling Myself" find Winslow-King doing what he does best with Delta-inspired brass band number in the case of the former and roiling slide blues in the latter. It’s a confidently fitting end to an album that, while stylistically diverse, doesn’t always hit its mark. Regardless of whether some of the more experimental forays into other styles succeed or not, Winslow-King shows he knows what it is he does best and, should he wish to, can always come back and knock it out of the park. Until then, like the titular traveling man in the album’s closing track, Winslow-King is content to continue exploring, wandering the rich musical landscape of the South, exploring all its pre-war potential.