Joshua Stuckey's voice is no conventional beauty. It's flat as roadkill, nasal as Flonase, as prone to warping and quavering as those unsteady abandoned barns I see from the highway when I drive back to my parents' house in Wisconsin. When the man, who goes by his nickname, Stook (rhymes with Duke), sings, it's like he's trying to bicycle a straight path on a bike with bent-up tires. On his sophomore release, When the Needle Hit the Wax, Stook—with the help of his band, the Jukes—makes like a stuntman on his singular instrument. He lowers it to a gentle lullaby pitch on "Seasonal Affective Disorder" and makes it sway and rasp on "Diggin' on You."
But I like the way he sings opener "Lovesick Firecracker" best. There's just something about the word "firecracker" that lends itself to delivery in a pitched, country drawl. It's a word that just belongs to Americana, an idea Stook endorses when I call him up to talk about the new record. I tell him that I wondered if the song was a Lucinda Williams cover at first, because she, too, has a voice made for croaking out "firecracker."
"It's a great word for all the ugly white people who can't sing very well, and that's kind of my bag," he says easily. "I bet Ryan Adams has used 'firecracker,' I bet all the Traveling Wilburys have used it, and probably Gary Louris, too. But you gotta be careful, 'cause you can use it once, but then you're done," he laughs.
Stook is about as tense as The Big Lebowski's the Dude, and he speaks in the same thoughtful-lazy cadence, though with a slight twang. He tells me he was born in Indiana but moved to Minneapolis because he "thought the Jayhawks and Paul Westerberg were really cool—isn't that why you moved here?"
But it couldn't hurt that Bob Dylan also came out of these parts: "I'm singing through my nose, and this is a great town for that."
I don't want to insult the man, but I have to know—what's his take on those Stook pipes?
"Well, if you're Aretha Franklin, how does that work? You open your mouth to sing, and you hit the jackpot—wow, you're Aretha Franklin! I opened my mouth, and I didn't really hit the jackpot, you know?"
Aided by Caleb Garn (his best friend, roommate, bassist, and producer), Stook has found a sound that swings along with the rough grace of an urban cowboy. When the Needle's 10 tracks sometimes tremble, sometimes gallop, and the album is filled out and colored in by pensive mandolin notes and bleary organ sweeps by Toby Lee Marshall, winsome slide guitar from Jonathan Earl, and down-but-not-out beats by Jordan Carlson.
With his friends by his side, Stook has watched his local popularity grow since he started out playing a showcase for DEMO, a local organization that helps budding musicians navigate their way through the industry. His first CD, 2006's self-released The Soundtrack to My Minneapolis, got some radio play, and Stook and his Jukes were a little surprised to find their work reviewed as far away as Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands. "We can't read Dutch, and the Google translator wasn't much help," he recalls, "but they said we sound like Tom Petty and the Jayhawks, and that's great."
The band has no plans to tour—"I think of going on tour as something that Guns N' Roses does; we're just Stook and the Jukes"—but given the small-scale economics involved in home recording, the future seems as foreseeable as Friday night's plans with the friends you've known forever.
"I assume we'll make one a year for the next 40 years," Stook predicts. "After that, I don't know."
STOOK performs a CD-release show with Dan Israel on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26, at the VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222
When the Needle Hit the Wax
Draw Fire Records