Brave New Blues? Twist-O-Lettz

Posted on September 11, 2010 by

Artists: Rick Holmstrom, Juke Logan & Stephen Hodges
Title: Twist-O-Lettz
Label: Mocombo
Released: August 17, 2010
Genre: Roots Rock; Blues

The back cover of this album promises a record that is “sending the blues & other like-minded music through other-worldly filters…resulting in something reverently irreverent, respectfully reckless, ruthlessly relentless, heretofore unencountered & stranger than fiction…” So, does Twist-O-Lettz deliver on this brazen bit of braggadocio? In large part yes, though there are disappointments along the way.

The components of Twist-O-Lettz are guitarist Rick Holmstrom, drummer Stephen Hodges and harpman John “Juke” Logan, all three veterans of the Southern California blues and roots rock scene. Holmstrom has worked with harp-players William Clarke and Rod Piazza, among many others, as well as making solo records. In 2002, he released a less than universally admired album, Hydraulic Groove, which prominently featured samples and drum loops. Logan is known for his work with, among others, Ry Cooder. Hodges’ work has gone from drumming for James Harman’s powerhouse late 80’s blues band of the Dangerous Gentlemens era to playing on multiple albums by Tom Waits. As can be readily gleaned from these resumes, all three are accustomed to working inside and outside a pure blues context.

Twist-O-Lettz is by no means a purist’s blues album. Rather, it is a stripped down, electrified roots rock record that howls and snarls its way from the opening invitation to “The Land of a Thousand Dances” to its closing declaration of independence (from conventional – commercial? – music tastes), “Ways Of Action.” Recorded live in the studio exclusively by Holmstrom, Logan and Hodges, the album is driven by drums and guitar. Logan plays harp only as a solo instrument. There is no bass. No keyboards. No additional guitars. Holmstrom’s guitar, however, is run through a multitude of effects, drenched in reverb, tremolo and “space echo.” The ever-inventive Hodges fills out the sound with an ample percussive palate from sometimes playing “voodoo drums,” to at other times producing a hoof-like clop-clop. The result is at once starkly simple and aurally arresting. Often it feels like the swampy sound of Excello records on steroids. And married to the driving rhythms of the Fat Possum school of primal blues. Guitar solos, at least of the single string variety, are at a minimum, as Holmstrom sticks to riffing his way through the instrumental bits (check, especially, his Chuck Berry cum Keith Richards turn on the Jerry McCain-penned number, :Turn Yer Damper Down”). Logan picks his spots for harp solos, entering the fray at opportune moment s (such as his fine Little Walter-inspired solo on his self-penned “Lone Wolf”).

So what’s not to like? Actually, the closer the group hews to more traditional blues fare, the less interesting things get. I suppose it’s a natural for John “Juke” Logan to cover Little Walter’s signature song, but “Jukestaposition” seems relatively lifeless in the company of its sibling tracks on this album (and, by the way, what’s up with failing to give Walter Jacobs at least a partial song-writing credit in the liner notes?). Same with Elmore James’s “Wild About You.”

This album really clicks when, as promised, it ventures into stranger territory, for example the effects-laden re-working of New Orleans song-writing icon Chris Kenner’s “Land of a Thousand Dances.” Before getting to the familiar role-call of dance moves, we’re treated to an invocation courtesy of the African American spiritual, typically heard at Christmastime, “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Weird, but affecting. Also inhabiting this terrain is Logan’s “Lone Wolf,” with its nasty guitar and rejectionist lyric: “I may be lonesome, but lonesome is cool.” Logan again contributes with the more up-tempo “We Got ‘Ta Rock,” propelled by Holmstrom’s gritty rhythm playing and Hodges’ relentless cymbal-free pounding. Logan’s urgent harp solo here is riveting. Holmstrom’s country-tinged “Look Me In the Eye” also works, with guitar playing so choked and rhythmic that chords become irrelevant (and indecipherable!). At the end of the song, Holmstrom exclaims, as only a transplant to Southern California can, “Take off those sunglasses and look me in the eyes!” The finale, “Ways of Action,” is an extended (7:04) tour de force and recapitulation of the sonic mayhem that has come before. The band, having set forth its musical vision, declares: “You try to tell me how the music should go/Look North, look South/Look at your back before you run your mouth.”

Despite its flaws, Twist-O-Lettz’s head-long pursuit of a roots-oriented yet original soundscape is clearly reward enough for taking this ride.

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