When Shack*Shakers frontman Colonel J.D. Wilkes helps kick off Swampblood by singing, “the fields are all fallow and the beasts are all feral / Dead cows in the boughs of the Live Oak trees / Left there to rot when the water recedes / No progress is made and the buildings tumble down”, he could easily be conjuring up images of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. In fact, flood imagery (and even explicit mention of Katrina) laps at much of Swampblood‘s foundation. But Wilkes could just as easily be singing about things much older, about any of the countless floods that have historically been an integral part of life along the Mississippi and its tributaries.
That sense of sepia-tinted age, of time passing without much really changing, pervades Swampblood. The Shack*Shakers’ unholy pscyhobilly ruckus mixes the trappings of rockabilly, gospel, and blues, but the group is so steeped in the archetypal South that they sometimes sound like they’re channeling something as old as the mountains. That’s a testament to not only the band’s showmanship — Wilkes, in particular, comes across like traveling snake oil salesman/preacher who feels the breeze from Satan’s claws on his soul — but also to the band’s strict thematic sense of purpose. Wilkes describes Swampblood as the finale to the band’s “Tentshow Trilogy” (following the old-fashioned revival vibe of 2004’s Believe and the Hell’s-Own-Circus strains of 2006’s Pandelirium), as a “canvas shrouded graveside service” that starts at dawn, goes through dusk, and circles back again to a morning sun that radiates dirty feedback down upon the land.
So when the disc’s title track erupts in snarling guitar and apocalyptic harmonica, with Wilkes bellowing “what we do with our own is our own damn business” and “dusty bibles lead to a dirty south / He’s sitting with a toadstool rotting in his mouth”, the band’s doing more than just cranking the Southern Gothic knob up to 11. Swampblood is conceptually tight, starting off with frenzied determination, easing up only towards the end of the disc’s just-over-30-minutes running time. Unfortunately, this means that before culminating in the stately piano spookiness of “When I Die”, Swampblood dabbles in a little bit of lighthearted backwoods shuffle (“Jimblyleg Man”), relaxed rockabilly twang (“He Ain’t Right”), and swing (“Angel Lust”). Ordinarily, that might be a welcome bit of variety from the Shack*Shakers (especially if it had taken place amidst Pandelirium‘s psycho-circus sideshow). On Swampblood, these stylistic diversions (even if the subject matter’s largely in keeping with the rest of the disc) tend to siphon power away from the ferocity that precedes them.
That effect is only temporary, though, as Swampblood finds the band in something of a high-octane back-to-basics blues mode. As a result, the bulk of Swampblood is the strongest the Shack*Shakers have been since 2003’s Cockadoodledon’t; heck, it’s just possible this is their best record yet. “Old Spur Line”, with its admonition that “your soul’s alone in this world of stone you’ll find” is the sound of a train of woe coming ’round the bend, but “Cheat the Hangman” sends it barreling right off of the tracks. The Creedence swamp warble of “Hellwater” sets up the frenetic “Easter Flesh”, in which Wilkes implores, “thrust your hand in the hole in the side of the Lord / Who is Easter flesh and bone / Be reborn in the blood, burgundy flood”. “Down and Out” sounds like what you’d hear if you came across the Wicked Witch of the West’s former minions standing in the unemployment line, while “Born Again Again” is a spry backsliders’ hymn. And the title track — that thing will blow the doors off any club that tries to contain it.
Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers, Wilkes in particular, seem to perceive a gulf in the identity of the modern South, this void that used to be filled with interesting characters born of hard times and hard religion. In fact, after concluding that Jim White and Andrew Douglas’s Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus glossed over the complexities of the South, Wilkes felt compelled to create his own documentary, Seven Signs. Swampblood isn’t explicity connected to Seven Signs‘ search for the remains of genuine culture in the South, but in Wilkes’ lyrics — and the fervor with which the Shack*Shakers support them — you definitely hear the Shack*Shakers’ belief that the rough patches of the South’s identity are the ones to explore.