September 22, 2014
Seattle’s Wages of Sin have always played the sort of outlaw rock’n’roll that your great-great-great grandfathers got drunk to. The sort of stuff Herman Melville would have kept on his iPod, if he’d had an iPod, and deafened himself with in the afterglow of writing jags, swinging punches at the shadows and passing out amidst the salty wreckage of his own hallowed creation. In the Wages’ frontier stomp and Boot Hill double bass are to be found the roots of rockabilly and skiffle; choruses worthy of John Wayne horse operas mixed with ethyl-soaked greaser getaway music. Their third album, Queensbury Rules, is their strongest yet, upholding a vision both original and vividly familiar to anyone with even a passing ear for roots music.
The WoS are devoid of that dilettante uncertainty which permeates many bands who seek to tinge their own songs with more rustic stylings. They play from within the form, not against the form, and they OWN these forms outright: country and proto rock’n’roll. There is no second row in The Wages of Sin, and the folk instruments – fiddle and mandolin – are not there to merely convey heritage; every component is front and centre, every song, the whole way through. Frontman Jesse Stewart sings it loose and free, and on the faster songs often sounds like he’s just come from doing a quick couple of shots with whomever else happened to be at the bar. There is no earnest composure and this approach complements the inherent swing of the music.
The track listing is paced to work like a live set. That being the case, everyone is wanting to dance within the first few bars of ‘Vigilante’. Is it too soon to dance? Some hang back, grinning through their own restraint. The hardcore and the boozed are already at it, and there’s a bit of breathless puffing as the title track slides into gear: ‘Queensbury Rules’ is a boogie with a Cajun heart. The greasers up the front are all over it, they’re off. The overland tour continues with the exhumed blues of ‘Ball Lightning’, which would sell an awful lot of bourbon if any distillery was ever interested in talking turkey. ‘Greenlake Wyrm’ seems to be a cautionary tale concerning monstrous inbred offspring, the story behind a local legend, so to speak.
And then to the album’s best singalong, ‘Fare Thee Well’. A sailor, his beloved Maggie, the rival Jacky Tipton… jealousy marked by a deceptively gradual minor chord progression as we stalk into O’Malley’s bar (an appropriate nod to Nick Cave, nice one!) and next thing, well, “pretty Jacky Tipton ain’t so pretty anymore”… then it’s off to Australia, always a good move, under the circumstances.
So now we’re on the open sea but still dancing, this time on the deck. ‘Jenny Finn’ is a call-and-answer shanty that strongly recalls the first WoS album, ‘Custom of the Sea’. By now, there is spilt grog all over the floor, and the greasers are lurching and piling up around the foldback speakers. So a breather is in order, and the blues rock of ’13 Lies’ follows, then the power chords and punkabilly gospel of ‘Lucky Boy’. And then WoS pull off the near-impossible task of taking the Irish standard ‘Tell Me Ma’ someplace new. In this case, on a cruise down a country back road, a very long way from Belfast City, with a red-haired burlesque dancer in the passenger seat and some outdoor sex on the cards.
‘Midnight Train’ is the type of simultaneously wild and lonesome country blues mantra which The Cramps made their own, replete with insolent reverb and rumble. The recording mix is a textbook example of perfect spacing; a plethora of retro hooks are all allowed their chance to shine, making this something of a tribute to the iconography of countless train songs. ‘Murder’ continues the vibe with a punchy twelve bar confessional, traversing some No Man’s Land between Stephane Grapelli and Social Distortion, (yep, that’s what I said).
First listen to ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ and I wanted to go to the local casino and disgrace myself. Or pick a fight with the sort of wanker who wears Johnny Cash t-shirts but can’t name more than two Johnny Cash songs. Or ride a mechanical bull. The “whack-for-my-diddly-aye-oh” of the chorus is the best hook of its kind since Hampton the Hamster’s ‘Hamsterdance’ changed the way we all think about mountain music. Wistful, fatalistic and liberated: the living essence of the true vagabond. By the fifth listen, I was ready to ride a mechanical bull INTO the casino and commence the disgrace from that point. This song kicks arse in the most straightforward way.
The show finishes with ‘The End Of The World’, a Western campfire crooner. I half expected Jesse to bust out a faux sentimental spoken bridge, but no. Maybe next time, pardner, maybe next time. A perfect set closer, a perfect album closer. Encores follow, no doubt, and at least we at home can go to the previous two albums and keep the band up there in front of the mics for a few more.