If the guitar/drums duo format has a throbbing, Brad Pitt-sized Achilles’ heel, it’s the potential for lack of flavor. Sticking to just guitar and drums is the Atkins diet of rock: it’s lean and fit, but noticeably lacks the bass’ bread and the sugary flourishes of multi-tracked mania. While that “in the garage” sound is the power duo’s raison d’etre (borrowing equally from the raw-is-beautiful aesthetics of the Nuggets and electric blues archetypes), it’s safe to say that the proverbial garage is gettin’ mighty crowded these days.
Unless, of course, your duo band is good enough to exist in its own garage. I’m talkin’ the Moaners, folks. Steel cage match, the Moaners vs. the White Stripes? My money’s on the ladies. Mississippian Melissa Swingle (formerly of Trailer Bride) and Laura King (Grand National) will disarm that seven nation army within minutes.
Need more proof? Here. The Moaners tear through a dozen songs of lusts, longings, grievances, and pet peeves on their debut album Dark Snack. It’s the sound of the swamp in the city, an irritated garage rock with a wry blues accent. Swingle has seemingly found her musical sole mate in fellow Moaner King: the former’s guitar and latter’s drums are fused throughout as a giant, sympathetic whole, twisting, blasting, spiraling skywards and crawling horizontally. As guitar/drums duos go, they’re less reliant on their blues background than Mr. Airplane Man (Dark Snack contains only one cover, an Elizabeth Cotton song, and a sweltering strip joint rewrite of “House of the Rising Sun”) and far more invigorated and charismatic than the White Stripes; think more of the Black Keys’ stoned fury as a contemporary comparison.
Dark Snack opens with a runaway feedback snarl before launching into the fuzzed-out, blistered “Heart Attack”; the band drops the verse’s bluesy riff for a sharper hook in the chorus. “Too Many People”, which is not a Paul McCartney cover but a punchy admission of agoraphobia (“I go to town, they’re all around like ants or spiders”), pits Swingle’s drawled, cast off voice against a bobbing rhythm. Impish seventh chords infiltrate the stop-and-start muss-up “Water”, slowing splitting open the song’s slo-blooze inebriations. After saluting the down-home philosophies of Flannery O’Connor (“You can’t get any poorer than dead / Yeah that’s what Flannery said”) and warding off the worst breed of men-as-dogs in “Terrier” (“You ain’t no Great Dane”), the Moaners really earn their name in “Hard Times”, a wounded molasses mourner. “It’s hard to be proud, to be American / When our country’s being run by rich, greedy men”, Swingle croons, adding a personal touch: “A four-piece band won’t make ends meet / Tonight baby it’s just you and me”.
Produced by Rick Miller (of Southern Culture on the Skids), Dark Snack sounds crunchy and warm; Swingle’s burnt guitar tones smolder in big open chorded swells over King’s rigid, fill-happy drum thunder. The expansive sound attempts to make the band’s sum bigger than its meager parts; coupled with Swingle’s hooky songwriting, Dark Snack is often downright irresistible. When Swingle and King bite into the dissonant half-step on “Flannery Said” or launch head-first into the instrumental outro of “Hard Times”, they effortlessly surpass all their duo contemporaries.
The best thing about the Moaners is not that they rock — though they seriously do — but that they sound like they couldn’t give a damn whether or not you thought so. Swingle’s voice has a laid-back, Southern laissez-faire, with a slight hint of detachment and hazy confrontation; likewise, King’s drumming is forcibly attentive but not technically garish. Dark Snack is entirely modest and sparingly altruistic, subsisting on just enough power and embellishment to get the job done. It rocks out but isn’t self-conscious about it — a sound worth braving even the muggiest Mississippi garage for.