Deadboy and the Elephantmen
We Are Night Sky
iven the frequency with which their sound has been copied the last few years, it’s somewhat surprising that no one has been able to approximate the guitar attack of the White Stripes. Plenty of folks have tried stripping down their sound, and anyone can shoot power chords through vintage tubes, but it’s the spaces between the chords that everyone always seems to miss—upper-range harmonics, nasty pick scrapes, aching feedback—that are the difference between Jack White and so many low-fat substitutes.
And forgive me for keeping the White Stripes reference percentage at 100 in Deadboy and the Elephantmen reviews, but whereas a band like the Black Keys might have legitimate beef with such constant mentions, D&E are all but courting the parallels. Peep the backstory: Lost boy Dax Riggs leaves home as a teenager, finds salvation in rock ‘n’ roll, forms stripped-down blues duo with female drummer, Tessie Brunet. Band gains roots-rock legitimacy signing to the venerable Fat Possum records.
And folks are willing to stomach just about any amount of bullshit (please see Bowie, David, and Dylan, Bob) if the tunes are poppin’, but D&E too often fail to deliver on their debut long player, We Are Night Sky. Failing in almost every way to connect with the gutsy Americana that Fat Possum has championed in the past, D&E fall into a frustrated six-string rut previously inhabited by Local H and the Von Bondies.
I’m on no mission to re-christen this band, but damn if they don’t end up with something that pretty closely resembles the blunt tones and eager angst of mid-90s grunge music. And that isn’t even necessarily an insult: When D&E are sharp, they blow into town with a chip on their shoulder, delivering poignant, aggressive rockers. Riggs can howl a lil’ bit, and when he lets loose on “Stop, I’m Already Dead” and “Kissed by Lightning,” he’s a terse, inspired vocal presence.
Riggs, however, seems hellbent on proving how versatile he is, mixing effortless stomp and limp balladry in equal proportion during the first half of the album. “No Rainbow,” “Dressed in Smoke,” and “Walking Stick” rely solely on Riggs and an acoustic guitar, with occasional harmonizing from Brunet. These tracks lack any real melodic presence, damming up any momentum the band manages on their briefer, tighter electric tracks. The nervous, down-tuned “Misadventures of Dope” better shows what Riggs can do with a bit of restraint, burying his vocals and letting the album’s best groove do the talking.
Even electric, D&E often seem to lack the fuel to hammer any adventure out of their arrangements, structures, or lyrics. Riggs is an aggressive axeman, but his over-reliance on distortion leaves him sounding less like a vintage gearhead and more like a 13 year-old with one of those orange Boss distortion pedals. Even then, the distortion does little to fill the room; Riggs sounds thin and almost comically simple in such a Spartan context. And while Riggs has the gruff pipes to mask some lyrical flaws, the repetition of lines like “I envy the night / For its absence of light” draw attention to his obvious rhyming and “deep young man” posturing.
Fat Possum’s valiant efforts to shine light on modern bluesmen are both inspired and laudable, but their recent excursions into contemporary music—The Black Keys, We are Wolves, now D&E—have yielded mixed results. It’s hard not to be disappointed with Fat Possum’s judgment and that, as much as anything, flavors the bland, modern-rock of We Are Night Sky.