By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
IF YOU WANT to write a good blues song, you can't go weeping over just any old thing. So you missed an episode of Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage and never got to hear Toni's view on how her boob job changed her life? You'd think you could just swallow some St. John's wort and get over it.
Yet Duluth blues rockers the Black-Eyed Snakes have made an art of transforming mild events into the most sob-choking, whiskey-swilling catharsis you've felt since the last time you caught your baby cheating on John Lee Hooker with a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion record. On their debut album It's the Black-Eyed Snakes (Chair-Kickers' Music), the Snakes suggest that the only apt response to finding cereal scattered on the ground ("Cheerios on the Floor") is to filter your sniveling wail through a harmonica and cry over spilt milk. (The song is dedicated to the Snakes' singer/guitarist Chicken Bone George's daughter, "Hollerin' Hollis Mae.") The only way to make a simple trip out of town is to take a filthy, distortion-drenched, three-chord guitar train ride over to the wrong side of the tracks ("Big Black Train"). And the only way to listen to an unemotive Moby track is by turning it into a holy liturgy ("Honey"), throttling your bass drum and tambourine, and stomping your feet like a spoiled child in a house of cockroaches. (Next to the Snakes' version of the song, the electronica baldie's original sounds like disco lite, best suited to the soundtrack to The Wiz.)
Sure, comparing a boring Amtrak trip and wasted Honey Nut Os with the lifelong woes of blues pioneer Skip James shows us that there are worse times to be had than the Snakes'. But another thing we've learned from James rip-offs like the Fabulous Thunderbirds is that there are also worse times to be heard. And although the Snakes may not have anything grave to growl about, their mastery of rocks-in-your-guitar blues is undeniably invigorating. The lyrics are rousing, yet they don't seem to matter as much as the music: Chicken Bone George (a.k.a. Alan Sparhawk of Low) could sing just about anything and the jagged-toothed edge of his guitar alone could still saw through every fiber of your emotional restraint. For a genre that relies heavily upon personal narrative to carry its repetitive chord structures, this is an unusual feat.
Perhaps they are able to pull it off because the Snakes are not your usual blues band. It's true that, with "Big House" Bobby Olson on guitar and "Smokin'" Brad Nelson on drums, Chicken Bone George plays the traditional blues role of the preacher man. He pleads with the Lord to save his soul (over the chain-gang scratch of "Lordy"). He tells his listeners to treat their women right (on the start-stop wallower "8-Inch Knife"). And he rants unintelligibly like any holy man should (on the lyrically garbled "Smokestack Lightning"). Yet "George" is known for saying that he's not necessarily a blues fan (which didn't stop the Snakes from being the opening band at Duluth's Bayfront Blues Festival).
The Snakes have the smacked-up vigor of a punk band rather than the sit-down stoicism of a blues legend. Hearing that Chicken Bone George occasionally does somersaults into the Snakes' pared-down drum kit during live performances makes it hard to believe that this is the same man who sings quiet lullabies with his other band, Low. But there seems to be an equal intensity that flows between his alter egos, from Sparhawk to Chickenhawk, from the slowcore trio frontman to the devil's honky-tonk son. His movement between genres could be a form of alternative energy in itself: It's as if all of Low's pent-up emotions have been run through a converter into the Black-Eyed Snakes' blazing bulbs. And as the musical electricity starts humming like a harmonica, you can almost imagine Sparhawk urging it on, declaring in his best gospel tone, Let there be light.