Barrence Whitfield and the Savages: Under the Savage Sky
Barrence Whitfield and the Savages sound as wonderfully raw and unhinged as ever on their latest record. Hopefully it will find an audience to match.
Listening to Barrence Whitfield and the Savages' new album was an oddly diffracted experience for me.
On the one hand, the music is undeniably excellent. Like fellow Bostonians Mission of Burma, Whitfield and his band are one of those rare groups whose latter-day post-reunion work sounds just as good as their first go-round. Indeed, it was their last album, Dig Thy Savage Soul that brought them to my attention, as it was their debut on Bloodshot Records. It was also the eighth of their career, coming a year short of their pearl (that's 30th, people) anniversary.
I was amazed how shot-to-the-chest powerful the band sounded and was later amazed to go back and hear how it was even rawer than much of their early output (at least what's available on Spotify). So it is hard to believe guitarist Joe Greenberg's assertion in the press kit that the band was hoping for something "harder and garagier" on the new record. But lo, after no more than a few songs on Under the Savage Sky I had to admit that they seemed to have found at least a couple more edges to roughen up. Whitfield, as the lead singer tore through the songs bringing equally apocalyptic fury to originals as to classics like Timmy Willis' "I'm a Full-Grown Man".
But as I was enjoying the album, I couldn't help but wonder, "who the hell is listening to this?" The liner notes tossed around names like Joe Louis, Howlin' Wolf and Wilson Pickett and that was by no means unfair. In this case I have nothing against either of those groups but I couldn't help but feeling like maybe part of my enjoyment was simple nostalgia mixed with my own self-congratulations at being able to hear a song and think "hmm, sounds like the Stooges doing "Shake, Rattle 'n' Roll".
Perhaps this is all Bloodshot's fault for providing such a welcome home for under-appreciated greats. Their catalog is littered with names like Jon Langford, Graham Parker, Robbie Fulks, Alejandro Escovedo and other rapidly-greying artists that continue to make transcendent music for an increasingly self-contained niche of listeners. I guess it's all relative seeing as Ryan Adams, Neko Case, Kelly Hogan and the Old 97's all used the label as stepping stone to (at least marginally) bigger things and larger audiences. Still, the thought of an album this raucous and ribald being confined to its own little prison of well-curated, artisanal throwback rockabilly was disheartening.
I will say that the abundance of covers, though well-chosen, did give the affair a little greater of a feeling of a preservation society than it might have. No one loves covers more than I, and God knows that pop music is mostly just a Boggle-style recombination of basic elements and influences but at times on songs like the swinging cover of "Rock 'N' Roll Baby" or bluesy howl of "The Wolf Pack", this seemed to be more preservation than reinvention. Conversely, both the band and singer sounded their best on the originals, with "Willow" and "Incarceration Casserole" being particular high points.
Of course, in my heart I know that all this musing is just self-aware over-intellectualizing bullshit that happens when you spend more time thinking about pop music than is healthy. I know that at the end of the day, making music is its own justification. Under the Savage Sky is loud and dirty and angry and sexy and sad. The guitars have teeth like a Great White's and the sax isn't far behind. What else can you ask for? Whoever hears these songs will have a lot to enjoy. Whoever sees them performed live will (by all accounts) experience the primal rush of sound that's always given rock 'n' roll its appeal.