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Californian group Dead Rock West are built around Cindy Wasserman and Frank Lee Drennen. They clearly have no intention of being too constrained by a particular style, being happily categorised as Americana, alt-country or roots rock but who cares, anyway? Question is, how good are they? The answer is that they're plenty good enough to be worth checking out and that with this second album they're doing something rather interesting. It seems that the first album was success enough to drive their career for the next couple of years but maybe that success jaded their appetite for what they were doing. So, come the time to go back to recording, they were inspired to make a gospel album, to re-visit some songs which are lurking in most Americans' cultural hinterland. Cindy Wasserman says she wanted to "get back to the simplicity of life by connecting with the source" and, atheist that I am, I can understand what she's getting at there.
Now there are many strands of what might be called gospel music in its broadest sense but you might expect that a country-rooted music act might delve into the riches to be found in Appalachian music and be content with that. Not so with these guys; Angel Band is in there, for sure, as well as June Carter Cash's Wings Of Angels and Johnny Cash's Ain't No Grave but the core of the album is built around gospel music from the other side of the racial divide: there's two songs from Blind Willie Johnson and the original, spiritual version of This May Be The Last Time that the Stones changed beyond recognition for their early hit. Three more songs from the spiritual tradition suggest they've searched long and hard for songs that suited their purpose but it's the two songs from outside the tradition that are the eye openers. Peter Case is their producer here and it's his song, co-written with Tom Russell and Bob Neuwirth, that is the only one on the album that isn't explicitly Christian; Beyond The Blues happens to have been a favourite of mine for a while, a song with great dignity that suggests that love is the answer to take us "beyond the blues". It's not specified in the lyric but it's a small assumption to make that it's God's love we're talking about here, so that's why it fits right in amongst this gospel company. The other "outsider" here is The Jesus And Mary Chain's song, God Help Me. In contrast with the strong faith expressed elsewhere, this song is a raw plea for that strength from a man all too aware of his doubt and his sin; the spiritual honesty contained in the lyric is a welcome contrast to those songs which suggest faith always comes easily. There are hints of that struggle in some of the other songs chosen, perhaps most notably in Blind Willie Johnson's song, God Moves On Water, which deals with the sinking of the Titanic. The lyric hints that the disaster was the result of man's presumption but the real purpose of the song is to confront a crisis of faith that comes in the wake of such a disaster.
So what about the sound that Dead Rock West are making? Well, it doesn't really sound like a gospel album I would say. Angel Band is kept pure and simple, and is the song that most sounds as if it's genuinely imbued with faith. Otherwise, I'm tempted to characterise the sound as a Californian version of the T-Bone Burnett approach; Ain't No Grave opens the album and is a strong contrast with Johnny Cash's own take on the song. This version is full of youthful defiance and the stirring arrangement is first, or maybe second, cousin to the more forceful sounds to be found on Raising Sand. Generally speaking these performances impress more with their vigour and muscularity than with any soulful spirituality and when the slide guitar on God Moves On The Water develops something of a whirling dervish intensity then it is very much in tune with where these guys are at with this material. There is something compelling about what's happening and my guess is that this will come over more strongly in live performance. There'll be an opportunity to find out because Dead Rock West are heading for Britain in March with the full band in tow.
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