Music » Rhythm Section: by Alison Fensterstock

The Sound and the Furies


With Hopewell, Birds of Avalon If Southern Gothic had a sound, it would be the voice of Melissa Swingle. Her plaintive, haunting wail is perfect for the dark, creepy country-blues narratives she weaves with the Moaners and her former band, the possibly-defunct Trailer Bride. In fact, her voice can veer into the territory of the audibly painful, like the uncomfortable sound of a child weeping somewhere outside in the night. If Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood were somehow translated into a popular song -- as well as most of Faulkner and select Eudora Welty and Larry Brown texts -- it would have to be Melissa's voice that sang them. The sound is simply eerie. It reeks of bottle trees, juke-joint shacks on empty nights, swampland, dirt roads and Appalachian hoodoo. The Moaners' new album, on Yep Roc Records, has the appropriately Faulkneresque name Blackwing Yalobusha. The songs drive hard, burn slow and hang over you afterward like a hex. The album is the duo's sophomore effort, following 2005's Dark Snack (a great album title, being that it sounds vaguely ominous, but is also a kind of order you can place at most mid-South establishments that serve fried chicken). With drummer Laura King, the dark, keening country ballads Trailer Bride was known for erupt into a rolling boil. The back-country foreboding is still the key ingredient, but the final result is less of a haunting than an assault. Blackwing Yalobusha is an angry, mournful, scary rocker of a blues record, chug-a-thumping ahead into the dark, close on your heels.

The Chapel Hill, N.C., duo headed into hill country -- hallowed blues ground -- to record the album. (A hastily shot documentary of the process, filmed by Yep Roc founder Tor Hansen, comes with the CD). They traveled to Clarksdale, Miss., to record with former Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus, where a potential wrench in the spokes turned into a lucky break. Jimbo's own studio -- where he'd recorded Elvis Costello's roots record, The Delivery Man, in 2004 -- was out of commission because of serious electrical issues. Rather than turn the girls around and send them home, though, Mathus booked them into Blackwing Studios -- formerly the semi-legendary Money Shot studios, where the alt-blues revival label Fat Possum had first recorded now-iconic lunatics like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and T. Model Ford. There was extra resonance in the move for Swingle. Como had been the home of the rather musically violent blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose style, she said, inspired her own punishing, fuzzed-out slide technique.

"It was really important to us to play well while we were in that house," Swingle says in a Yep Roc press release. "Those fellas didn't like to do a bunch of takes, so we wanted to nail it. I'm originally from Mississippi, so I felt reverent about being in the Money Shot. I mean, Mississippi Fred McDowell was from right next door in Como, Miss., and his music is the reason I learned to play slide guitar in the first place."

In an open letter about the album distributed by the label, Swingle wrote: "I had seen a documentary on R.L. and Junior [probably the 2005 DVD You See Me Laughin'] and all those guys that showed some of them playing in that same house, in that same room, so when we walked in I recognized everything. You could almost physically see the vibe in there. We were in awe of our surroundings but yet we didn't want to just play the blues. That's not us. That's not our sound.

"We wanted to capture the atmosphere of the blues and the feeling of the South, Faulkner's South, O'Connor's South, but play with the form and take it somewhere new," she wrote. "Being in that studio, smelling its smells and walking among its ghosts, made the music just come out. It was almost as if it was coming from somewhere else, practically jumping out onto the tape. Three days and three hundred drinks later, we had our album. Blackwing Yalobusha is a testament. It's an offering made at the altar of our heroes, but with the understanding that we will take what they built, tear it all down, and build it again -- harder, stronger and all our own."

The Moaners recorded Blackwing Yalobusha in Mississippi - blues country. - MIKE TRIPLETT
  • Mike Triplett
  • The Moaners recorded Blackwing Yalobusha in Mississippi blues country.

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