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http://www.deadrockwest.com

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. 

John Davy

 

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Year 2016

1
Levi Parham
90 pts.
These American Blues
Music Road Records
GC,JBO,TK
2
Martha Fields
86 pts.
Southern White Lies
Independent
BP,BH,FB,JAB,RW,SP
3
Carter Sampson
75 pts.
Wilder Side
Independent/CRS
AN,CRS,JB
4
Anna Elizabeth Laube
65 pts.
Tree
Ahh...Pockets! Records
DH,NC
5
Michael McDermott
60 pts.
Willow Springs
Pauper Sky Records
BK,MM
6
Shovels & Rope
54 pts.
Little Seeds
New West
 
7
Robert Ellis
53 pts.
Robert Ellis
New West Records
DHO
8
Sturgill Simpson
52 pts.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Atlantic Records
JJ,JF
9
Douglas Greer
50 pts.
Baja Louisiana
Zilker Park Records
HDB,ML
10
Lucinda Williams
46 pts.
The Ghosts Of Highway 20
Highway 20 Records
EM
11
Buddy Miller & Friends
44 pts.
Cayamo Sessions at Sea
New West Records
 
12
Wink Burcham
43 pts.
Cleveland Summer Nights
Continental Song City
 
13
Eric Brace & Peter Cooper
42 pts.
C&O Canal
Red Beet Records
BR
14
Brent Cobb
41 pts.
Shine On A Rainy Day
Elektra Records
HH
 
Daniel Romano
41 pts.
Mosey
New West
CVL
 
Leonard Cohen
41 pts.
You Want it Darker
Sony Music
HO
17
Christian Kjellvander
40 pts.
A Village: Natural Light
Tapete Records
BM
18
Drive-By Truckers
39 pts.
American Band
ATO Records
AR,EZ
19
Birds of Chicago
38 pts.
Real Midnight
Five Head Entertainment
LM,SZ
20
John Prine
37 pts.
For Better, or Worse
Oh Boy Records
FS,MB
21
The Cactus Blossoms
36 pts.
You’re Dreaming
Red House Records
GS,HD
22
Richmond Fontaine
35 pts.
You Can’t Go Back
Décor Records
FCE
23
Gillian Welch
34 pts.
Boots No.1: The Official Revival Bootleg
Acony Records
LK,PR,TJ
24
Sarah Jarosz
33 pts.
Undercurrent
Sugar Hill
RM
25
Joe Purdy
32 pts.
Who Will Be Next?
Mudtown Crier Records
AL
 
The Devil Makes Three
32 pts.
Redemption & Ruin
New West

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