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Blues

Hard time

The Soledad Brothers’ upward trajectory is back on course, though Johnny Walker lives in a van

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Published 10/27/2004

White blues fans — which is to say white fans of blues music — come in a vast array of ideological shades. Hardcore purists, the “appreciation society” dudes, curl their lips in a patronizing sneer if it doesn’t sound like Blind Willie McTell. The upwardly mobile soccer-dad types keep the 10-disc changer in the back of the SUV loaded with the complete Jimi Hendrix remasters, with bonus tracks and alternate takes. Young, straggle-haired, self-destructive blooze punks dream about Robert Johnson’s poisoned jar of whiskey and mangle the ends of their fingers trying to master the opening riff to “Midnight Rambler.”

Then there are some, like the Soledad Brothers, who don’t sweat the poses.

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Walker, de facto mouthpiece and frontman for the Brothers, has just walked a mile to get home in time for the interview. His van broke down on the way — the van he lives in, these days — and it’s now parked on the front lawn of a friend’s house. He’s got to get it fixed by tomorrow, so the Soledad Brothers can play their dozen upcoming shows in support of their new album, Voice of Treason, which turns out to be an old album, kind of. The whole thing is more than a little convoluted; but then, so was the Brothers’ slow metamorphosis from stripped-down blues revivalists to full-bore junkyard rockers.

As a staple act in the late-1990s Midwestern garage revival, the Brothers, initially a duo comprised of Walker and drummer Ben Swank, worked the Detroit dive-bar circuit in front of uneven crowds. On the very first night they played, in fact, there were only a handful of people in the audience, but fortune smiled: That handful consisted of high-profile Motor City musos from bands like the Detroit Cobras and the Dirtbombs, as well as Jack White.

Swank and Walker’s hookup with White led to the release of the Soledad Brothers’ first single, 1998’s “Sugar and Spice/Johnny’s Death Letter,” on the Italy label. The band’s full-length debut, a self-titled trad-blues experiment, followed in 2000. An appearance on the Jack White-produced Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit comp the following year netted them wider notice. Two subsequent records, Steal Your Soul and Dare Your Spirit to Move (on which they added a third Brother, Oliver Henry) and Live, recorded at Detroit’s sorely missed Gold Dollar, found them touring across the pond, where the Soledad Brothers were feted with four-star reviews and giddy concert write-ups in NME and Time Out London. Their third full-length, Voice of Treason, was released in the U.K. on Polydor in 2003, to overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Then Walker returned stateside, and things got weird.

“After the record was released in England, we started working with outside management for the first time. I’d basically done all the negotiating with Polydor, and I’d done the talking with the other labels we were in contact with. But when we got back to the States, no one would return my phone calls.”

The record’s title, Walker now thinks, gave U.S. labels pause. But while it’s true that a band called the Soledad Brothers, and an album called Voice of Treason, smacks of the subversive — and while Walker himself makes no bones about his own highly libertarian political views — there was no content on the record that could remotely be construed as overtly political.

“But they’re cowards,” Walker says, flatly. “I’m not gonna name the record companies we tried to deal with, but they’re cowards. They think in terms of how many units get moved, not in terms of the integrity of the music.”

The band’s management eventually approached the venerable Sanctuary label, which picked the album up for U.S. release. And, at long last, domestic audiences can find out what U.K. fans have known for nigh a year: Voice of Treason is a helluva giant step for the Soledad Brothers.

And it is a subversive album, of a sort, though that subversion has less to do with politics than with the ever-twisted notion of aesthetic purity. Steal Your Soul had already proved the Brothers weren’t interested in simply shoplifting the forms and sounds of the blues, nor were they postmodern revisionists on the order of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. There was passion behind the music, and there were chops behind the passion. But Voice of Treason fully unpacks — for the first time, really — the music that Walker, Swank and Henry love to make, and that love is steeped in country, gospel, soul, R&B and (yes) garage rock influences as well as the blues.

“I think [the diversity of styles on Voice of Treason] came from a couple of things,” Walker offers. “First, we’d all become better players after spending three-quarters of a year on the road together. But more importantly, I think we all hate the way that some bands pigeonhole themselves: ‘We’re a garage band, so that’s the kind of music we do.’ Well, fuck that. That’s no fun. I love being able to play a Hound Dog Taylor riff, and then halfway through the song go into a free-jazz run, and then swerve back around to the riff. You listen to any album you really love, any Who record: Do those songs all sound alike? Hell, no.”

Listening to Walker’s enjoyably foul-mouthed aesthetic philosophy is a lot of fun, but listening to the album itself is a lot more. Kicking off with the determined power-pop stomper “Cage That Tiger,” which probably rocks like a bastard live, the band slips into the ragged Slim Harpo braggadocio of “The Elucidator” — which, incidentally, can be taken as a veiled response to critics who accuse the Brothers of borrowing their riffs from the Stones and their attitude from the Stripes.

Well, to hell with the naysayers. If the Soledad Brothers have struggled with one particular problem over their six-year career, it’s probably been their intense love for the riff and the groove, which occasionally led them to produce albums and play shows that obscured the variation in their tastes and styles. Thankfully, Voice of Treason finds the band working past this limitation, assaying gospel (“Lay Down This World”), soul (“Only Flower in My Bed”) and straight-ahead indie-pop (“I’m So Glad”) in addition to Skip James-style acoustic numbers (the haunting “Sons of Dogs”). In short, it’s music made by people who love music, for people who love music. And when the talk turns to the folks who come out to hear the Soledad Brothers play — the folks he’ll be seeing in just a few days — Walker gets downright joyful.

“I love the fact that so many different people come to the shows,” he says. “We get the blues preservationists, and the rock kids with the off-center haircuts, and parents with fanny packs — and we get the hardcore music snobs, too, for some reason. That really bothered me, that the record labels we talked to [about releasing Voice of Treason] couldn’t see that.”

Walker pauses, and you can almost sense him grinning.

“But what the hell,” he says lightly, in the voice of a happy, rootless rocker — a man who’s making exactly the sound he wants to make.

Soledad Brothers appear at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit) on Oct. 29, with Detroit Cobras. Call 313-833-9700 for info.

Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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