There’s something special about blues-based rock. The same song can sound plaintive or happy, subdued or ecstatic, soft or hard depending on how it’s played. The arrangements can be as simple as a singer with an axe to a wall of noise (and who really needs a singer?). Canada’s Whitehorse — the duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland — mostly believe in playing it dark and hard. They turn six classic cuts of the past by legends like Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Chuck Berry into a smoldering clamor. The multi-instrumentalists also sing nasty, so the sexy cuts sound dirty, and the others — oh, there are no others; after all, this is blues rock — sound just as dirty.
They also sound a bit drugged out and wired. Through the use of multi-tracking, the two can really build a song with a thick slab made of many layers. Rather than drone, Whitehorse adds color to the material through innovative arrangements to cover the chug-chug-chugging beat, which can range from affected vocals to fuzzy electric guitar riffs; it’s something tasteful yet slightly disturbing, like a dressed-up blonde with a big hickey on the neck. And then there’s the anarchic last two minutes of the disc, which, although it is largely acoustic, sound like there’s a dobro and gauze taped over the singer’s microphone. It’s billed as part of the classic “Come on in My Kitchen”, but it more closely resembles the blast of an X-15.
One could easily label the music as experimental more than blues rock, despite its roots and reliance on an electric guitar. Consider Howlin Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle”, made famous by both Koko Taylor and the Pointer Sisters and covered by everybody from Savoy Brown to the Grateful Dead. Whitehorse starts the song straight, but then they get psychedelic, and before long the words don’t even matter. The feedback is intentional and things get out of tune, if on a higher plane; then everything just comes to an end.
The pair play the acoustic country blues on Reed’s “Big Boss Man”. They exchange lyrics back and forth and then harmonize as they complain about work. The guitars rebel against the strictures of conformity but never lose the melody. McClelland turns the vocals into a come-on of sorts, as she huskily croons of the big man. She does the exact opposite on Berry’s “Nadine”, a song originally about unrequited true love now turned into a stalker tale through her inflections. The guy seems obsessive in his chase, yet she doesn’t sound happy about being pursued.
The 25-plus-minute length of The Northern South Vol. 1 prevents Whitehorse from getting boring. The different approaches to the material keeps things interesting. Still, the drum machine can be grating, and there can be too much of a good thing when guitars drift off into space. While the disc isn’t perfect, there’s much to offer here. The two players understand the primal underpinnings of desire expressed in this music, ensuring that the songs come from the body more than the heart or mind. Whitehorse should be felt more than heard to be appreciated. Crank it up!