I know it’s early but mark my words: come curtains on December, Lonesome Shack’s Desert Dreams – the London-by-way-of-Seattle trio’s latest full-length player, out March 1 via Alive Naturalsound Records – will still be creeping under the skin of critics’ lists as a contender for one of the best records of 2019.
The LP, an absolutely hypnotizing blend of Junior Kimbrough-style deep-blues, urban folk and Fahey-esque slow expansion, is just that goddamn good. From the start of opener “On The One,” guitar-slinger/frontman Ben Todd’s simply got you by the throat: he picks out mesmerizingly simple but devastatingly engaging little lines on amplified guitar while half-crooning lines like, “When you have love/nothing can hurt you,” suggesting, perhaps, that truth is not the only storyline you should be believing.
But the record is more than Black Keys’ Chulahoma-style hero worship. “New Dream” has an airy, even jazzy, slinkiness to it, as a glassy, undistorted electric guitar flutters out bent notes over brushed cymbals and pulsing bass. “Desert Dreams” flirts with barebones blues-rock, though Todd wisely keeps the Creedence shouts to a minimum by whispering out the vocal. (Smart man.) The sullen “Only One,” with its John Lee Hooker lead, is cut solely for the purpose of getting drunk by yourself in the dark, whereas the rumbling “Too Bad,” whose backbeat hints at Jon Spencer, is more public – it’s meant for a crowd and, more accurately, for a crowd consumed by the lust of a bar brawl. “King Clone” contains some of the most bad-ass sounds I’ve heard from the Delta in years.
The trio, it should be said, though, is more than Todd. While his guitar, pristinely but far from fussily recorded, is the thing that will captivate you, the spotlight shining into the iris of going cold turkey, he is supported – truly buttressed – by a really admirable and surprisingly understated backing band. Bassist Luke Bergman, an unsung hero, often suggests a sense of rhythm and repetition falling somewhere between down-key rockabilly and John Paul Jones. (He’s particularly good on “Too Bad,” lending a kind of thump-thump buckle-down to the song’s meter.) And Kristian Garrard’s spare percussion hits only the notes it needs to hit, not a single one more. If you needed any window dressing to consume this kind of desert phantom, look elsewhere; this band wisely keeps the proceedings and the studio interventions to a minimum, lending the record, yes, that lonely desert (or deserted) feeling.
Rumor has it Todd learned the ways of the six string while living in the New Mexico desert in a, yep, lonesome shack, spinning the grooves of old blues records. If true, it’s the perfect narrative: solitary man beats loneliness to arm himself with a Guthrie machine and spread it to the masses. Like I said, I know it’s early, but this thing has got to be heard. Sing it from the rafters of the bar and from the bottom of the empty bottle: December’s calling, baby.