Tag Archives: Wages Of Sin


September 5, 2009


The following is an uncut, unfiltered, unwashed, unedited, uncensored conversation between Jesse Stewart of Seattle’s rockabilly Appalachian death punk gringos, ‘The Wages of Sin’, and our own Rumjack, Will Swan.  First instalment as is follows:

[JESSE]: So, young Swan–what are some musical styles beyond “Celtic” and punk that have had a big impact on you? Where did you first hear them?

(WILL):  Yeah, the old ‘Celtic’ vs ‘Punk’ model, ay??  Well, there’s  a lot more to it than that, of course.  You know, I see songs – maybe a lot of people do – in terms of the light in those songs, the actual daylight or moonlight or streetlight or bar lights.  The elements of the setting.  And I’ve always dug the way that Spaghetti Western music, if you will, or ‘horse opera’ sort of music, has this big rootsy sound that really resonates the sense of wide open spaces.  There’s this Spanish/Mexican component to it, of course, the whole Day Of The Dead thing, the romantic violence and violent romance.  I believe you’ve trod this perilous path in your own music, Jesse?  If Ennio Morricone more or less galvanized it, then he was certainly taking a sensibility that was always there.  Cowboy music, flamenco music.  Big rock’n’roll and rockabilly bottleneck guitar sounds.  Big resonant Gibsons or Gretschs, I’m not sure exactly, I’m not a string player.  But that sort of thing always strikes a chord, you hear it in Reverend Horton Heat, you hear it in punk rock (like Rancid’s ‘Django’).  The Pogues celebrated it so fucking gloriously in ‘Rake At The Gates Of Hell’, which is just totally soaked in sunshine and blood and dust.  Coming from a country of wide open spaces, and being someone who has done road trips my whole life, as opposed to being some suburban couch potato, that’s always appealed to me.  There’s an serious outlaw mythology in America and Australia that’s part of this also.  And then there’s the mad religious imagery, that’s part of that gunslinging thing, too.  I’d say that I felt I’d come full circle when I stood with the cathedrals of Portugal looming over me, just standing there in their shadows above the crypts full of bones, totally blitzed on Portuguese white port, and thought “fuck yeah, this is what it’s about!”.   I’ve got this instrumental in my back catalogue somewhere, maybe Rumjacks will do it, called ‘Dos Gusanos’, a tequila brand I once picked up in a Portuguese bottle shop in Sydney.  I just dig all  that stuff.  I’m not Catholic, but I dig that Spanish style of Catholic imagery, to put it mildly.  You’re a gringo like me but wouldn’t you agree ….??

[JESSE]: Man, I can tell already it’s going to be hard to keep this on track, you’ve raised a half-dozen interesting ideas that I could follow on some meandering  tangent or other. I’ll try to stick to one at a time… I’m struck by your idea of seeing the light in songs, it captures the way music can tickle so much more then just the ear — all the emotions it can evoke, the way sense-memory will kick in for places you’ve never been, places that might not even exist. That feeling you had at the cathedrals of Portugal, that sense of the sublime (in the original sense of the word) — it does seem to strike one in churches and graveyards, doesn’t it? Certainly those types of sounds — the ones that evoke dusty old churches and sun-baked little towns, blood and dust and horse-sweat and the hero dying with rose in one hand and a pistol in the other — are a big part of my influences. The cowboy/flamenco thing, rockabilly and classic country (which I played for years before the Wages). So what do you think is the appeal of those sounds — what ties it to the Celtic or Punk-rock influences? I’m wondering if it’s the rebel thing, the outlaw — I can see ties between the American/Australian mythology (which have some interesting parallels in and of themselves) and the Irish/Scottish ‘rebel’ mythology. There’s a common thread there celebrating the loner; the man against the world; the doomed, romantic struggle against the tyranny of that overwhelming foe.. The fight to save your way of life (which is in itself interesting, since it’s a fundamentally conservative point of view). And of course Punk is all about rebellion against the status quo (putting aside that it’s become the status quo in some ways…), all about your own way of life. Is there some common mythology uniting the vision behind the music? What do ye reckon?

(WILL): I reckon some sense of rebellion is inherent in the music, both overtly and indirectly.  It gets represented in different ways; in rockabilly, I suppose there’s this time capsule around its aesthetic that preserves a sense of postwar rock’n’roll rebellion. That whole hyped menace of ‘fifties alarmist news reels, delinquents and tearaways and all that.  Now, over half a century later, this is more a case of honouring something, perhaps?  Part subculture, part quaint historical re-enactment, part evolving musical form.  And then there’s the whole Confederate thing going on in that, which is represented internationally.  We had a bloke at a Rumjacks show who had a great tattoo, ‘The South Pacific Will Rise Again’, he was a burly Islander.  I thought that was great.  I might be generalising but I have always seen rockabilly as essentially ‘southern’ music that took on everywhere else but carried implicit and explicit rebel imagery with it.  And I think about it springing from Scots-Irish environments and sometimes wonder if Johnny from our band has rockabilly hardwired into him, given his Scots-Irish background, he’ll hate me for saying it, but to me it just rings true!

The rebellious element is represented in so many ways, from gang vocals to pure volume to a common emphasis on drink and drunkeness.  I’ve looked at this last one from opposite perspectives.  Drunkeness is just a lens – a way of literally looking out at the world –  and music celebrating it isn’t really celebrating the drunkard so much as how he sees the world.  In that sense, making music on the subject is a pretty pure take on things.  Because you feel liberated when you’re drunk, songs celebrating that sensation are an inevitability.  But short of smashing things up because you’re drunk, you really might as well be eating chocolate by way of a ‘rebellious’ act as getting sideways drunk.  It’s just a valve for most people and that’s fair enough, although the Saturday night barroom hero is probably just some obedient citizen or henpecked wage slave..  That was never my own deal when it came to drinking, I was in it on a totally different level and lived a  totally different philosophy, but I suppose there will be songs that celebrated the liberation-by-numbers that most people treat drinking as.

The romantic underdog ‘Celtic’ sensibility always comes up, of course.  This simplified narrative of the REBEL Irish & Scots is such a huge phenomenon, a really, really complicated, messy, ridiculous, stupid, justified, heartbreaking, untold, true, false, tragic and bawdy story all in one,  and all through the history of the British Isles and the history of the diasporas.  Some bands and songwriters choose to represent it in ways that are crude and absurd if not completely offensive.  Some incorporate it in expressions of profound poignancy.   This concept of identity probably differs slightly throughout different parts of the Celtic diaspora.  It is characterized by amnesia, assimilation, denial and romanticism but it also bears the bloodstains of truth.  It’s a huge subject in itself, full of contradictions.  But the fact that we are talking about it, acknowledging ‘it’, the ‘Celtic rebel indentity’, means there must be something in it, whatever that is.  And for the record, just so you don’t think I’m some cold-blooded casual observer, my own family tree is, for a large part, made up of Scottish and Irish people who came to this country through the 19th Century up until the First World War, and I also have American Scots-Irish blood, and Welsh, (and I’ve got cheesey pugilistic leprechaun and Clan motto tattoos, so there!).

And perhaps the ‘rebellion’ doesn’t have to mean singing hoary old IRA songs, or Jacobite songs, maybe just the music itself, the actual MUSIC, maybe that’s an expression of survival and proliferation, if not rebellion.  Because music that came on leaking boats, after Highland clearances and evictions and all, well, if that music has survived and evolved in the New Worlds, then that’s something in itself.

And there’s another big ol’ rebel motif in a lot of the music, too, and that’s the whole PIRATE thing!  ‘Cause pirates are fun and pirates are cool.  Now, Jesse, I’ve got to ask … does the whole nautical thing appeal, or what !?

[JESSE: ] Well I think it’s pretty clear the nautical thing appeals to me, haha (I’m listening to the Dreadnoughts as I type this…). At least on the salty surface I think it taps into the same emotional response as the dusty vistas discussed above. The (romanticized) sense of adventure, exploration, possibility – the FREEDOM of traveling to new ports of call, of doing whatever – laughable, really, since you’re trapped on a boat aren’t you, and subject to the officers’ every whim? But that’s the dream anyway, the fantasy. And the endless sea, that vast and beautiful and terrible expanse, the smell of salt and fish and seaweed, the birds wheeling overhead – it gives me the shivers.

And pirates, who doesn’t like ’em? Most kids like pirates – I know I devoured “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” and all that RL Stevenson stuff as a kid, plus non-fiction books about “the worst pirates in history” and the like. The N.C. Wyeth paintings in Treasure Island are still my mental image of what pirates should look like.

And of course pirates tap into that whole rebel/outlaw thing too don’t they? Masters of the sea, doing what they want, etc. – not at all like the merciless thugs they actually were for the most part (same with the sentimental vision of Old West outlaws like Jesse James, who was pretty much a confederate/segregationist terrorist). You only have to look at real pirates today to see that pirates are about as glamorous as a junkie who mugs you for a fix, but we of course prefer the noble Robin Hood vision of it.

I like the image of ‘rebel’ music expressing survival and proliferation, rather then just the romantic doomed battle – isn’t survival and proliferation the ultimate rebellion? That seems like a piece that’s often missing from ‘updated’ takes on roots music – the positive, celebratory side of it (Gogol Bordello comes to mind there). Many acts seem to have kind of a shallow understanding of the music and its history, and just grab onto a few cool images or tropes. Natural enough, it’s how we all start with, but you hope it leads to a deeper understanding at some point. It’s what leads to those ‘crude and absurd’ representations of the whole Celtic/rebel narrative you mentioned, and also to a lot of the (in the USA anyway) ‘St. Patricks’ Day’ drunken-Irish stereotypes. (And BTW I am NOT trying to present myself as some kind of expert on any of this stuff, I’m just barely scrathing the surface at this point.) It happens with country music too – lots of people love Johnny Cash singing “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Cocaine Blues” but don’t want to hear him sing “I Was There When It Happened” or any of the religious stuff. It’s all Saturday night and no Sunday morning, if you know what I mean.

It’s funny, because I find that stuff very moving, and I’m not religious at all – I generally consider myself an atheist. In fact, overt religious (particularly Christian) lyrics usually turn me off to a song or artist right quick – except of course for the dozens of exceptions, ha. I had someone listen to a bunch of Wages songs once and he said “A lot of angels and devils”, and he’s right – that imagery resonates even though I can count the number of times I’ve been to church without running out of digits. I don’t know if it’s just cultural memory, or if it’s maybe that so much religious imagery is built on mythology that goes back to the first hairy bastards sitting around a fire telling stories. But I find those symbols really powerful, even if I don’t have much use for the organization behind them. You mentioned earlier digging that ‘mad religious imagery’ – do you connect with it in a religious or spiritual way, or more as a part of the atmosphere you try to conjure when you write? What’s your take on the religious influence on roots music? It’s certainly a huge part of the catalog going back…

(Will): Well, I’m going to throw in a disclaimer here myself and just say I’m not a bonafide folklorist, but this is really interesting stuff.  As far as I know, there are NO Australian folk songs that really even mention religion.  And as for the Irish component of the ballad tradition – which is a major part of the whole deal – I can’t really think of too many at all.  Of the cuff here, there’s a song that parodies piety (‘The Glendalough Saint’) and one that is a sort of comical take on sectarianism (‘The Old Orange Flute’).  I can’t think of too many that espouse the Catholic church or anything.

That which I relate to on a spiritual level can be found in Kerouac’s ‘Dharma Bums’, or in the films of Terrence Malick  (‘The Thin Red Line’).  I’m not sure what it’s called.  Maybe ‘eternity’, maybe something taoist, who knows.  That sense informs and reflects my entire world view, it is a non-belief system, or an all-belief, if you will.  Maybe on some subtle level that will come into my writing.

(BUT … I reserve the right to dig all and any religious aesthetics and characters.  It’s all FOLKLORE, after all.  But my themes in writing seem to be pretty much wordly, especially in relation to ideas of liberty.  Liberty from the shackles of addiction, or stagnant relationships, or from jobs and ruts that have you wanting to jump out the window.  Those things bring on what Bukowski called “death in life”.  And you mentioned Gogol Bordello; I LOVE their whole take on freedom and liberty.  I always loved that band and I listen to them more and more now, my girlfriend is Hungarian-Australian, that gypsy stuff is on high rotation).

But in folk music, I’d say you can’t talk about Appalachian and American country music without acknowledging the religious subjects and themes.  They’re just so much part of it all, aren’t they?  And often, because of the sheer sincerity involved, nobody can really knock that stuff.  Far from it, everyone loves it.  You can take the most humanist, secular, intellectual, urbane, free-thinking, atheist music fan, and nine times out of ten they’ll really dig everything from the ‘dark’ Johnny Cash spiritual songs (a perfect example, by the way, Jesse) to the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou ?’ soundtrack. ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, ‘I Saw The Light’ … all those old-timey songs.  I think it must be the sincerity and ‘rawness’ of the delivery, as opposed to any desire for a religious connection.

Nick Cave has often incorporated these elements very directly.  So too has Tom Waits, more often with a gospel strain are the true masters of the craft.

Perhaps those themes of redemption are universal, and perhaps they are part of the rock’n’roll mythology, the opposite of excess and ‘sin’?  Taken to its extreme, this idea is explored in ‘hanging songs’, if you will.  Not just the concept of the doomed outlaw, but of the human man literally at the end of his rope.  To acknowledge this subject in song is not something undertaken lightly.  For my own part, the idea of state-sanctioned slaughter is a disgusting barbarity that has always haunted me; it’s kept me awake at night.  It still does sometimes, the same as when I was a kid.  And when it comes to death row songs, NOBODY does writes it like Steve Earle.  I think a lot of Australians have completely forgotten – if they even bothered thinking about it in the first place – that (white) Australia was founded in the shadow of the gallows and the cat o’nine tails.

For the record, Jesse, my favourite Wages Of Sin song is ‘The Drunkard’s Prayer’.  Not the word ‘Prayer’ in there!!  I think it is emblematic, it’s a terrific song that really honours its musical and thematic roots.  I love it because it is purely rootsy, unrestrained, ambiguous and whimsical, and it just rocks hard.  And I’m a recovered alcoholic, although I didn’t find sobriety through ‘that old time religion’.

We’ve covered a fair bit of ground here, Jesse.

[JESSE] I think you’ve summed it up pretty nicely, so I’ll just add a few odds and sods. Interesting (but maybe not surprising) that so much of the religious stuff comes out of the USA, that protestant gospel tradition combined with our legacy of slavery–all those spirituals and field songs. That actually touches on your concept of liberty as a subject matter in a more literal sense—songs about freedom, and singing as a way to find some kind of relief, some kind of escape, when your body is in shackles. Like Solomon Burke sings: When one of us is chained none of us are free.

You could argue that ‘Tyburn Jig’ takes the hanging concept lightly—certainly the lyrics there are in a bit of a contrast to the delivery. I had some friends of my brother who played that at their wedding! I don’t think they listened to the words too closely, haha. I’m with you on Steve Earle—I had the great fortune to see him on the ‘Train a Comin’ tour, just after he got out of jail. It was one of those shows—you know what I mean, yeah?–that was just magic from start to finish, easily one of the best musical experiences of my life. And he played ‘Ellis Unit One’, which hadn’t been released yet (the movie wasn’t even out). Just him and a guitar, and it was breathtaking—all the hair on my arms standing straight up, I swear to dog.

The Drunkard’s Prayer, yeah another religious metaphor, haha. It’s meant to be a bit ambiguous, it’s actually quite personal but I don’t like to be too literal with my lyrics, ya know? Ultimately though it’s not asking for sobriety (or personal salvation)–it’s looking for some hope for our species, our world, our universe…

For me I’ll have to go with ‘Paddy Goes To Babylon’ (at least this week). I’m probably mis-hearing most of the lyrics, but the chorus really resonates—it’s silver and it’s gold!–the whole thing’s got a kind of rough-hewn celebratory vibe to my ear, the perils and pleasures of Babylon. Kicking against your “death in life”–that pretty much captures it right there.

And with that I’m done rambling for tonight… Cheers mate, here’s hoping we can do it over a mug of coffee sometime!

The Rag & Bonemen, The Wages Of Sin, Rum Rebellion – Portland, Or (May 18, 2007)

I did something I rarely do nowadays… I went out on a Friday night. You see, work wise, Fridays kicks my ass so bad, I usually go straight home like an old man, but not this time. There was no way I was going to miss this gig, so with that being said, on with the review… Considering the nautical element of the bands involved, the neighborhood for tonight’s gig was fitting. The Mt. Tabor Legacy, is located smack dab in the middle of Portland’s Bermuda triangle. (There’s so many bars in this area, the odds of ever leaving are not in your favor!) Rag & Bonemen start the show off with those haunted folk-punk tunes they do so well at. Rag & Bonemen played some new songs, and some classic ones from their recent EP. (BTW, When’s that full album due?) It’s a shame their set was so short, because I was just warming up, the damn house lights came on, which of course was followed by a mad dash to the bar, and next thing you know, The Wages Of Sin are setting up, and like Rag & Bonemen before them, I was seriously impressed. Their stage presence was full of energy, their delivery was amazing, and quite honestly, The Wages Of Sin flat out kick ass. I can’t wait for their new album. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, try and catch them live. Up next, was Rum Rebellion, I think I have seen them over a dozen times, and I can honestly tell you, they keep getting better, and better! They already have a number of new songs, and are probably spending every waking moment writing new material. By the end of the night we were a drunken mess, and things got a wee bit hazy. I must admit, I feel quite lucky to be living in an area full of great folk punk bands.

This is a good thing to be surrounded by.

Review by Barnacle Brian

Wages of Sin: Queensbury Rules

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.

Knockout stuff.

Will Swan


Ornery (adj.): having a contrary disposition; cantankerous

Yosemite Sam is a prime example of an ornery character well known to all. And The Wages Of Sin play purely ornery music. By burning the sugar and gloss off the surface of rockabilly, they effectively reduce it to its folksy roots and then take it waltzing around the saloon floor while grizzled prospectors spit their ‘baccy and whoop it up. While their second album Gringo Mariachi has all the rustic bluster of Yosemite Sam on a goldfields rampage, it also showcases a particularly rich depth of musicianship rarely seen in punked-up folk. This milieu is male, all-the-way-male, and sepia-tinted at that. But the misadventures of messy, flawed men is bedrock material for country music. Long may it be so.

The card game opens with Skull Creek Logger, a folk punk bone-rattler as pleasingly gutsy as its name suggests. The rolling war drums are reminiscent of Rum, Sodomy & The Lash-era Pogues. Men fight the elements of the New World and shout back into the wind as they are decimated by forces beyond their control. Fury and fiddle music provide a terrific unholy union. Then onto the album’s prettiest firecracker The Drunkard’s Prayer; if anyone was ever in any doubt about the direct lineage shared by American folksong and rockabilly/rock & roll then this song settles all arguments. And best of all, it carries the wistful, lonesome and fatalistic essence of such roots music all within a hollered chorus of “tur-a-lur-a-laddie”. There are countless songs of rambling and alcoholism churned out by any band that dares to brand itself with the Jolly Roger but this one really stands out. Lead Sinner Jesse Stewart has delivered a classic traditional song which every greaser and Bettie Page girl from Seattle to Sydney will immediately appreciate. Hellcat grooves. And unsentimental, too: “I woke up in the street and all the birds were singing, so I went back to the bar while the church bells all were ringing”. Been there, drank that … Prayer just tells it like it is. Belly Of The Whale is 18th Century scurvy and bilge rats stewed and steeped in biblical prophecy. The imagery would not be out of place in an early Flogging Molly song and the minor key keeps it grim.

Black Lung Blues brings Steve Earle’s bare knuckled storytelling to mind, a bitter chronology of generations of mining men and their lives of battle and toil. A rich vein of subject material is tapped here. Haymarket opens with a neat gypsy banjo quick-waltz but soon surges into pure countrybilly. This one must be a live favourite. New Orleans Eulogy is country rock of sorts, crammed with swampy imagery and doomed sentiment; “a southern gothic tragedy, an angel’s grievous fall, Sin City got your money, liquor took your voice”. Bible & A Gun continues with Steve Earle’s vision of the ‘modern’ folk ballad, a tale of incessant drug running against a background of old time religion and military misadventure.

Razor In My Pocket is something straight out of that Irish folksong softback you keep stashed away with that cheap banjo you still haven’t got around to learning (LEARN IT, you lazy bastards). Razor is a ‘Gangs Of New York’ tale minus the ridiculous accents of that film (Day Lewis excepted). Portrait Of An Evangelist stands out on account of its stark Appalachian gospel introduction, unsettling and reeking of brimstone. Then it’s back on the salty decks with Ten Fathoms Deep, very much in keeping with the sound of The Wages’ first album, Custom Of The Sea. But there’s a theremin in here somewhere (!). The Righteous Stranger by mandolinist Marc Robben is a scalding political stream, totally contemporary and therefore something of a departure for the band. And then … (here we go) … and then a banjo and mandolin-powered take on The Clash chestnut White Riot. You can’t really go wrong with that. The album ends with a no bullshit country death song – Stull – a solid and typical Wages broadside that serves to illustrate the fact that country death song lyrics sit happily alongside heavy metal lyrics; “I’d like to say I’m on the righteous path, but I’ve done things that might incur God’s wrath”. ‘Cept there’s a county sherriff in here, so you know it’s The Wages Of Sin.

The good folk of Seattle should be very proud of The Wages Of Sin. Great musicians to a man, they take roots music in their own direction with confidence and clout. And to all of us flawed gringos who have rambled, brawled and woken up in the street, they show that has always been thus. But also that redemption is always lurking in the wings. Manana, manana, a gringo’s life for me.

February 2008

Will Swan November, Sydney 2008

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


Wages Of Sin : Drink & The Devil – Demo

One of the good things about blending various musical style together is this band from Seattle called The Wages Of Sin. (No need to discuss the bad right?) The Wages Of Sin self-describe their music as: Punk-Rock Sea Shanties & Appalachian Death Polka Since 1862. Considering the fact that they are dead on, I no longer need to continue with the review! The Wages Of Sin like to use fiddles, stand-up bass, mandolins, guitars, drums & vocals as their respective tools of evil! And according to their bio, they enjoy mixing Celtic with country with Appalachian with rockabilly with Tex-Mex with bluegrass and follow the whole mess with a bracing shot of punk rock. The standout for me where the rockabilly and Appalachian influences. If I were you i’d expect some great music coming from these guys in the future. Anyone heading up to Seattle for the Celtic/Arsenal football match this summer will have a great opportunity to see them live.(That is of course, if they’re playing that night..)

Oh yeah I need to mention that the 3rd track “Jolly Roger” is 100% Pirate-Approved! ARGGH!

March 2004

Review By The Reverend Brian Gillespie