This week I review two recent releases by bands hailing from the Wheeling area that are slices of Americana.
"Wide-Eyed Tragic Myth," released earlier this year on the band's own Flying Boxcar Label, is such a mix of profoundly great influences and superb songwriting it's hard to know where to begin.
Leader, singer, songwriter and guitarist Matt Heusel is a walking, breathing encyclopedia of great music with an innate sense of what sounds authentic and organic. With influences ranging from John Coltrane to the Clash to Woody Guthrie, "Wide-Eyed Tragic Myth" is an art-rock album that normally would be a highly influential release if there was any justice in commercial radio.
"Wide-Eyed Tragic Myth" is a song cycle about the economic decline of the area and the death of the working man's dream - steel mills closing and the exodus of the best and brightest for greener pastures to a supposed promised land that really may no longer exist.
Steeped in reggae, funk, soul and hip hop, the band paints a picture similar to John Steinbeck's America during the Great Depression, and, in fact, the ghost of Tom Joad runs throughout the album. But just as "The Grapes of Wrath" ends on a high note of defiance and dreams of better days to come, so too the Trainjumpers say all hope isn't lost, mainly through great, joyful grooves. There's a literacy to the lyrics that's deep for a band hailing from the land of "Play That Funky Music, White Boy," but the Trainjumpers hijack the white-boy soul just as the Clash did on "London Calling" and turn it into a thinking-man's party album, rebellion as a good time.
The simple fact is none of this would mean a thing if the music wasn't any good, but the Trainjumpers have the best rhythm section I've ever heard from a local band. Impossibly infectious grooves permeate every track, while the message is told in stark, earnest terms. The album is capstoned by "80 Percent," a brilliant piece of songwriting that eventually morphs into an avant-garde avalanche of white noise that would do free-jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock proud. The track even features a beautiful rap by local artist Righteous B, who must have had a field day spinning rhymes over a groove like this.
The audacity of the 11-minute track might throw some people, but it's an especially brave artistic act for a band that's not afraid to think and feel outside of the Ohio Valley music box. I especially love saxophonist Travis Hoard - son of guitarist extraordinaire Roger Hoard - and his hard, biting tone that reminds me of Coltrane or Blue Note legend Jackie McLean. Guitarist Clifton Landis is a master of the tasteful riff, while Brian Gorby on drums and Tim Boyd on bass lock in and virtually breath together, seemingly capable of endless variety on the art of the groove.
Recorded both at Rick Witkowski's Studio L in Weirton and Tim Boyd of Perpetual Harmony Studio in Wheeling, the guys were smart enough to let tape roll and get out of the way.
"Wide-Eyed Tragic Myth" can be downloaded for free on the band's website at www.thetrainjumpers.com.
"Roll and Move," the latest release by the Adrian Niles Band, mines a different kind of Americana. Niles - incidentally, a co-founder of the Trainjumpers before moving out on his own - is obviously a student of the blues.
While many modern, so-called blues bands clean up the rough spots that permeate the best of classic records by blues' legends such as Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, "Roll and Move" connects directly with the classic Chess Records sound and keeps it raw.
Sending his vocals through an over-modulated mic - made famous by the low-budget ambiance of Chess Records in Chicago - Niles understands the folk-poetry of Waters and sheer braggadocio of Howling Wolf and how that made Chicago blues the rosetta stone.
James Brown's band the JB's' vibe also permeates the music, with the not-too-precise horns giving the music a connection to the past that bypasses sterile, modern R&B for something far earthier and gritty.
I love Niles' resonator guitar-grooves, harkening back to the days when a single guy with soul and a strong right foot could drive an entire band in a shotgun shack. Everything here is funky, soulful and fun while not being in the least bit pretentious.
A heartfelt homage to the great blues masters of the past recorded with an urgent feel, "Roll and Move" captures perfectly what Niles is trying to get across and shows he knows what the little girls don't understand.
For information on the CD and band, go to www.adriannilesband.com.