Devil in a Woodpile


If the household use of electricity is one of the most important technological innovations of the past 200 years, Devil in a Woodpile has yet to hear the news. With In Your Lonesome Town, a harmonica-, washboard-, and kazoo-driven long-player drawn mostly from the blues canon, the Chicago quartet proudly positions itself against amplification and as the antidote to all things MIDI. But dig this: Because the outfit is recording old songs with old instrumentation and modern technology, much of the disc’s charm lies in its crystalline sound. For example, it’s no secret that the tuba often subbed for the upright bass in jazz’s New Orleans infancy—and still does on Beale Street today. It’s a near revelation, however, to hear the instrument manhandling the changes of “Louisiana Fairytale” on something other than a scratchy 78. And though Charley Patton’s recording of “Shake It and Break It” is a classic at over 70, the Delta wizard’s voice and guitar are obscured by a crackling bonfire that turns precious bass and treble frequencies into kindling. Devil in a Woodpile’s cleaned-up version presents the song as Patton heard it: a frenzied interplay of feet-movin’ rhythms and sexual innuendos that anticipated rock ’n’ roll by decades. So what’s amiss? Well, it’s that these standards are so…standard. Lonesome Town is so hung up on primary sources that it forgets to be original. Let’s face it: If you’re in the mood for something along the lines of “A Long Way From Home” or “When I’m Drinkin’,” you’re more likely to reach for a Sonny Terry or a Big Bill Broonzy record than to throw on a CD by four dudes with glasses and trucker hats, no matter how crisp the recording—unless, of course, said dudes bring a little something new to the proceedings. It’s notable that one of Lonesome Town’s most exciting moments is a subdued reading of the Led Zeppelin classic “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” the only track that’s not strictly traditional. By applying its own minimalist filter to American blues as interpreted by English arena-rock heroes, Devil in a Woodpile produces a photocopy of a photocopy that looks more like an original than anything else here.

—Justin Moyer