REVIEW: Jaw Horse – “Cancer Creek”

coverWhat do you picture when you think of the blues? Do you picture some weathered old black man in a suit-and-tie get-up a la’ Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi? Is he sitting there with an acoustic guitar or a harmonica in his hand, crooning ‘bout how life’s done him wrong in a sad, soulful voice?

That’s all well and good, but what about the other side of the blues? The darker side?

See, even before rock ‘n’ roll, blues was “the devil’s music.” Literally. Blues lore is rife with stories of sex, violence and black magic. Think Robert Johnson selling his soul to Satan at the Mississippi crossroads, or just about any version of “Stagger Lee” you’ve ever heard.

That side of the blues? That’s where Jaw Horse lives.

Such is obvious the moment you pick up the band’s first full-length, “Cancer Creek.” Before you even hear a single note, the macabre, recycled horror-movie poster-style album art clues you into what Jaw Horse is all about. Then you hear the first track, “Mother Mary.” You hear its gravelly vocals and the raunchy, rollicking guitars that kick into the highest gear right out of the gate. You hear the lyrics “I’m into getting drunk and overdosing on drugs / I’m into fucking girls that I don’t even love.” And  there isn’t any question in your mind: Jaw Horse is here to raise hell.

From there, the fuel-injected hot-rod pace almost never lets up, with the band barreling headfirst through 12 tracks of sleazy, sludgy stoner-punk, at the heart of which is an unabashed affection for old-school Southern blues, honky-tonk and rockabilly. To put it in the most mainstream-friendly terms I can manage, Jaw Horse is a little bit AC/DC, a little bit ZZ Top and a whole lot of Motorhead, but still a distinct, separate animal all its own. An animal that runs on alcohol.

“I don’t have a chance in hell of passing through those gates / Enough bad decisions have already been made / I don’t remember asking to be saved / I don’t need to be absolved of any of my sins / No one’s going to stop me from enjoying them.”

So boast the lyrics of track #8, “Hang in There.” I was going to say that track sums up the band’s point of view perfectly, but then I realized track #9 is called “Rather Been a Devil.” But what about track #4, “Liquor Does the Talkin’”? In truth, there’s hardly a song on “Cancer Creek” that doesn’t feel like a philosophical manifesto. Every track is a take-no-prisoners/take-no-shit Satanic psalm of debauchery, a reminder that rock ‘n’ roll is a perverts’ party fueled by illicit substances and illegal activities.

What good are any trashy troublemaker’s tales of gambling, chain-smoking, slut-fucking and guzzling gargantuan amounts of throat-scorching moonshine, though, without some equally trashy tunes to back ‘em up? Luckily, Jaw Horse’s bite is just as brash, boozy and bluesy as its bark.

That said, at times, the band’s overall sound feels like it could use more variation sprinkled throughout. About half the tracks on the album have a hard time standing out from one another. They all have a very similar feel and, frankly, start to get repetitive after a while, with a few too many ultimately degenerating into the same strand of galloping punk fury by the end.

Admittedly, some degree of repetitiveness is to be expected, given the purity of Jaw Horse’s vision. I mean, this is a band with a very straight-ahead mission statement, centered squarely on joint-tokin’ ‘n’ bar-brawlin’. Nevertheless, “Cancer Creek” too frequently lacks dynamics. Its best cuts are the ones that offer at the very least a marginally broader sonic scope.

“Feels Like Zero” turns the Southern-fried groove up to 11, while “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” really ramps up the old-timey blues vibe. The band’s influences shine through most brightly on track #12, “Bullet,” which channels Chuck Berry playing “Johnny B. Goode,” and track #7, which is a killer cover of The MC5’s “Ramblin’ Rose.” Meanwhile, “Go Man, Go!” pushes the band’s occasionally overshadowed melodiousness to the forefront. It also does a great job of showing off the gritty, trippy guitar work that serves as Jaw Horse’s greatest strength. “Wrong Side of the River” offers some similarly standout guitar work and songcraft, deftly balancing strength and speed with soul and slow-building suspense.

If I had to imagine a perfect environment for Jaw Horse to inhabit, I think they’d feel right comfortable as the house band for The Titty Twister (the lusty, dusty, middle-of-nowhere Mexican topless bar run by bloodthirsty snake-vampires in the Quentin Tarantino-penned horror flick “From Dusk Till Dawn”). The group’s unique breed of dirty, druggy, feel-good doom has got boogie to burn.

Choice cuts: “Mother Mary,” “Feels Like Zero,” “Wrong Side of the River,” “Go Man, Go!”

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