Save about 1,000 miles, 40 years or so, and that whole punk-rock thing, there’s really not too much distance between Robert Johnson and the Cramps. The Delta bluesman famously traded his soul to the devil, after all, and Lux Interior & Co. spent much of their art-damaged career making bad music for bad people.
Or at least that’s how Boston’s Tarbox Ramblers seem to see it, to judge by the band’s fine new album, A Fix Back East. Powered by frontman Michael Tarbox’s slide guitar and goosed hard by bassist Johnny Sciascia and a trio of rotating drummers, the disc drives straight into the heart of Johnson’s modern primitivism, all the while shooting longing looks in the direction of the Cramps’ drugabilly skank. Add to Fix’s twangy, reverb-drenched maelstrom a lyrical preoccupation with sex, death, and religion, and we’re talkin’ nothing less than Songs the Lord Taught Us With a Hellhound on Our Trail.
A quick refresher: The Ramblers’ sloppy but inspired self-titled debut, issued in 2000, showed the band to be a lot less afflicted than its peers by roots rock’s stylistic straitjacket. Ironically, the album consisted mainly of revival-tent takes on timeworn ditties such as “Honey in the Rock,” an old Carter Family gem, and “Jack of Diamonds,” a Brother John Sellers chestnut that opened Tarbox Ramblers on a high note it never quite hit again. The album also showcased an impressive (almost scholarly, really) mastery of jug-band style.
Problem was, the covers completely overshadowed Tarbox’s own shambling copyrights. Those scanned mainly as quick scratches over palimpsests of rarefied folk and country ur-texts. Even the group seemed unimpressed with itself: Only a couple of original compositions made the cut.
But my, how things have changed. A Fix Back East essentially reverses the ratio of covers to originals, and the disc makes it emphatically clear that the Ramblers have spent the last four years licking—and honing—their chops: There’s nary a dud to be found among its 11 tunes. Even more impressive is that, strong as they are, versions of “No Night There”—one of two requisite traditional obscurities here—and Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues” aren’t even among the album’s numerous high points.
“Already Gone” is, though. The set-opener sinks the spurs in deep from the get-go, riding on Tarbox’s thick ’n’ twangy guitar riff and Howie Ferguson’s loping, country-road backbeat. Tarbox doesn’t waste time lyrically, either, mixing up the sacred with the profane like a character torn straight from the pages of Flannery O’Connor: “Jesus Redeemer calling back through the dust,” he sings to his beloved in a husky, quavering tenor that reeks of Lux-style depravity. “You look so good lying on my cool iron bed.”
Elsewhere, “Were You There?” finds the Ramblers blending gospel thematics with fiddle-streaked raga to totally mesmerizing effect. Over the top of a hazy psychedelic drone, Tarbox borrows words from the Baptist hymnal and imbues them with so much malice it’s damn near un-Christian. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” he asks accusingly, before laying it on thick: “His mother stood screaming and crying, ‘Save my son, he’s dying!’” “Honey Babe,” a slow, grinding blues, is similarly twisted, with Tarbox getting all Old Testament on our ass: “The sword of God is swift and cold,” he intones in a gravelly, whiskey-besotted voice. “It’s gonna cut us down for the lies we told.”
Interestingly, even though A Fix Back East is a cohesive collection of songs, it was recorded in a couple of locations and with a trio of producers. The bulk of the album was laid down in Memphis, appropriately enough, under the tutelage of the legendary Jim Dickinson. On his batch of tunes, Dickinson—knob-twiddler of choice for the likes of Screaming Jay Hawkins, Big Star, and more recently, his sons’ band, the North Mississippi Allstars—engineers a crackling, live-in-the-studio sound perfectly suited to crusty keepers such as “Cloth of Gold,” a hop-along blues original, and “Country Blues,” a Southern-accented foot-stomper that lives up to its title here thanks mainly to Allan Sheinfeld’s tribal drumming and Tarbox’s daredevil slide work.
Dickinson was on hand for a few others, too—“Honey Babe” and “Were You There?” included—but the Ramblers headed to Cambridge, Mass., to record another clutch of tunes with Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie at the helm. Tracks such as “Last Month of the Year,” a traditional gospel romp tricked out with sunny back-porch harmonies, and the more alt-rockish title track suffer a bit from the pair’s slightly more gussied-up approach, but the songs themselves are no less impressive. Indeed, the rollicking “The Shining Sun” is the album’s catchiest number, three minutes and change of full-blown hillbilly rump-shaking. And the rumbling set-closer, “Ashes to Ashes,” is another of the album’s sure shots, its lumbering rhythmic attack slapped hard with bad vibes and laced with a cryptic vignette about thieves, grifters, and a murderous riverboat ride to New Orleans.
Ambitious, weird, and Dylanesque in reach, “Ashes to Ashes,” along with the Dickinson-produced tracks especially, probably assures the Ramblers plenty of year-end top-10 action. Similar claims were made for the band’s auspicious, if tentative, debut, it’s true, but this new disc is a different beast altogether: Demonically possessed and stirringly soulful, A Fix Back East is one helluva heavenly record. CP
The Tarbox Ramblers perform at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, and Saturday, Jan. 31, at Iota, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (703) 522-8340.