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The Moaners - Dark Snack

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Artist: The Moaners

Album: Dark Snack

Label: Yep Roc

Review date: Feb. 27, 2005

The voice of Melissa Swingle coats every song she creates. It's a drawl. It's thick enough that it slows down busy tempos. She goes monotone for unexpected stretches, then breaks into an aching melody. Unlike a lot of singers with an unconventional delivery, it doesn't create love or hate reactions. Her voice is pleasant. But it inevitably leads to classifying her music as country. That categorization rarely holds up, but her confounding delivery is the heart of her appeal.

Trailer Bride, the band she led through five albums, was a rock band that was often described as a country band. The last four albums came out on Bloodshot, a label who's roster teeters on country and rock divide. Trailer Bride's music had a backwoods quality, even employing the banjo and the musical saw. But Swingle would put the banjo through a wah-wah pedal, and when she bowed the carpenter's saw, it was strange and unmanageable, like an acoustic theramin. The values and strengths of county music, even alt.country, were pretty much absent in Trailer Bride: skilled chops were dismissed for experimenting. There was the sense that whole songs were created by finding an interesting texture on an unfamiliar instrument. Her lyrics shunned both the heartfelt emotion and wordplay of country, dwelling on character sketches drawn with a wry wit. Then there was that voice – nothing crystalline or high-lonesome about it. And a band name that seemed like a slur. Trailer Bride's best works, like Whine De Lune, are no more country than Exile on Main Street is a soul album.

The Moaners are Swingle's new project, a guitar/drum duo. Dark Snack, their debut, is a rock album through and through. The guitar is upfront, fuzzed out and thick. Really thick. Continuing her peculiar explorations, she's making loud rock that isn't exactly heavy. When the guitar is at its biggest, the sound is kept dry and close. It's dirty more than it's epic, even when a song like “Water” is a crawl of tense Jimmy Page chords. “Flannery Said,” driven by a grinding slide guitar, theoretically should hit like Mudhoney. Swingle's vocals can make the loudest riff into a sleepwalk, though. There's not many artists who could take the line “come on honey, let's just go to bed” and make a come-hither sound like resignation.

The Flannery in that song is Flannery O'Connor, the author who pretty much defines the Southern Gothic genre. Dark Snack also works a song out of an Elizabeth Cotten lyric, the folk guitarist who pretty much defines a stubborn gentility in the face of the world's indifference. Swingle shares something of the isolation in those voices. Like them, she's got a humor that isn't immediately obvious and a sly confidence that props a vulnerable exterior.

The power duo format suits her well: it's minimal enough to show off her traditional leanings, and brash enough that those leanings aren't reverent. “House of the Rising Sun” is reworked and set in a strip club. The famously catchy arpeggio is nowhere to be heard, and the put-upon woman isn't left doomed like traditional versions, though she doesn't appear to have much of a future, either. Even when her singing seems disengaged, an anger seeps though. Twice on this record, she slams men: first as pawing dogs, and later as fearfully weak and uncommunicative. Both times she uses the word “stinky.” But the disgust is conveyed obliquely. She's polite. She’s damn polite. She knows how to keep her dignity, a unique skill in the world of garage rock.

The sound lightens as the album progresses, and demons are driven out. Laura King's drumming is especially effective during the quieter songs. She finds tones that color the changes, adding depth and drive to the spare guitar. The album closes with a murky instrumental she creates out of distantly rumbling tom-toms. Swingle's musical saw appears, wailing even further in the background. It's not an Appalachian feel at all. It's more like very end of the night at a club, when the PA is clicked off, and your ears are still ringing.

By Ben Donnelly

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