The Wages of Sin: Custom Of The Sea

Billed as delivering a treasure chest of “Punk Rock, Sea Shanties & Appalachian Death Polka”, Seattle’s Wages of Sin do not so much fuse disparate musical elements as revel in the direct lineage of their influences. Sharp tense ‘50’s rock & roll hooks mesh with mountain fiddle stomps in a ballsy reminder that the two styles are just a short shuffle down the holler from each other; mountain music is the raw-handed grandfather of rock & roll after all. And, of course, bluegrass and Appalachian music are the frontier offspring of the Celtic and British ballad and dance music traditions. The Wages plunder these histories with total affinity and come up with a blend as clean and warm as a mouthful of Jamaican rum.

Steaming out of the yard with a version of the traditional ‘Railway’, complete with a chorus of navvies snarling and hollering in a shanty tent, the band are soon on a south-bound route with ‘Lay Me Down’ and its ‘Devil Went Down To Georgia’-style barnyard swing.  The bull fiddle snaps, the mandolin rings and the rain drives down. ‘The Angel’s Share’ continues the singalong with a bottle of sly grog passed around the back pews of a lonesome Baptist church.  And then we get to ‘The Tyburn Jig’which tells the grim tale of villainous wife-slaying cads and their road to the end of a rope. If this song is not on the next Shite’n’Onions Best Of, I will eat my scally cap for breakfast.Onto ‘Baptized by Fire’, which takes us back to that junction in the holler where rock’n’roll left home. The opening hook reminds us that for all the candy floss in the ‘50’s hit ‘Wake up Little Suzie’, the Everly Brothers themselves were coming out of an old and often wild tradition. That sense of history through music runs like a thread here, not unlike Steve Earle’s classic ‘Copperhead Road’. 

‘Django’ sees us in Sergio Leone territory; with a respectful nod to the vastly underrated Pogues (with Shane) swan song ‘Hell’s Ditch’. ‘Buccaneers (of Elliott Bay)’ has gotta be another S’n’O Best Of contender. ‘Graveyard Blues’ is virtually a tribute to the most desolate of Appalachian ballad forms, and a cover of the classic porch knees-up ‘Salty Dog Blues’ is one for the whole family. It sort of reminds me of the Muppets’ Jug Band, and I mean that as a serious compliment! Despite the name, ‘Heave Away’ is a cool cat strut – you can just see the cigarette smoke pooling above the double bass and neon beer signs. 

‘Jolly Roger’ is an album favourite, a fat cannonball of pure pirate punk. ‘Dia de los Muertos’ tells the wayward tale of a gringo’s narrow escape in a way that brings to mind Shane MacGowan’s ‘Mexican Funeral in Paris’. ‘Drinkin’ Days’ is a honky tonk classic, complete with a time-to-clean-up-my-act sentiment that is designed to make you want to drink even more. 

The voyage – or was that railroad trip – ends with ‘Saturday Saints’, a good bonding pub song complete with some classy Irish fiddle work as a closer. And then you hit ‘Replay’ and do it all again.

Great stuff. Get it.

August 2005

Review by Will Swan

http://www.thewages.com

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