Quarry Mountain Dead Rats
Bloodhound Killed My Squeezebox
13 Track, LP (2012, Independent)
Related: Quarry Mountain Dead Rats.
At first blush, an album title like Bloodhound Killed My Squeezebox smacks of bluegrass. But on the bluegrass scale, which until recently arguably registered only two readings – ‘bluegrass’ and ‘that ain’t bluegrass, son, get off my porch’ – the debut LP from Mornington Peninsula banjo pests Quarry Mountain Dead Rats is something of an outlier. Bloodhound Killed My Squeezebox definitely isn’t Flatt and Scruggs go to St Kilda. Nonetheless, this album has serious careworn style and delivers both variety and laidback charm.
Although Bloodhound breaks a mould or two, bluegrass fans will surely find a couple of hooks on which to hang their hats. Bill Monroe himself would probably regard this offering with a kind of curious engrossment, like someone sensing a familiar rhythm in the bass thumping through the ceiling from the flat above, without quite being able to thumb the song.
There’s fast-rolling banjo picking on show, jostling at times with lacquer-melting mandolin licks, as on opener ‘Take You Home’, the title track and the distinctly speedy ‘Nickel and Dime’. That said, there’s little of the compulsive speed that often hampers more traditional bluegrass. The lyrical promise of second track ‘Days Like These’ – “Let’s slow it down from the breakneck pace” – is delivered upon. Beneath this, upright bass keeps time in a familiar, Sun Records kind of way. Adding interest and texture to this familiar one-two rhythm is the rustic simplicity of Ben Clements’ washboard percussion.
Lead vocals are traded and shared from track to track, but there is little to no emphasis on the seamless harmony of classic bluegrass, with backing vocals sat well back in the mix. The singing is accented throughout, but not with the usual bluegrass affectation, of a Tennessean farmhand with inflamed sinuses. Rather, the natural speaking tones of each singer stand out across the record.
For all the distinctive ‘strine of the band’s vocal delivery, there are familiar rural American themes popping up throughout. The “banks of the Ohio” are referenced in ‘Take You Home’, and the expression “crawdad hole” gets an outing in the pleasantly folk-hued ‘Days Like These’. The Land of the Free is also an obvious thematic scaffold for ‘Nickel and Dime’ and ‘Cactus Head’, and in a standout Americana moment, ‘Bill Higgens’ staggers onto the scene to deliver a B-Western tale of revenge killing, complete with a rusty .45.
The album peaks with freewheeling track ‘Hold Me Closer’. Daniel Sudholz’s keening banjo lends a surprising amount of warmth and colour to this affair, and the nostalgic but still brassy polish hints at the involvement of producer Shane Nicholson. (Nicholson and Kasey Chambers included a cover of the Dead Rats’ ‘Where No One Knows My Name’ on the deluxe edition of their most recent collaboration, Wreck & Ruin.)
For all its energy, I suspect Bloodhound Killed My Squeezebox merely hints at the potential of the band’s live show, which I confess I’m yet to enjoy. Closing track and lovingly rendered American country standard ‘Mountain Dew’ is a raggedly enjoyable exception. The album pitches at some mild bluegrass genre-baiting, but it goes a good deal further than that. There’s a warm quality at work here, and a tempering of more extreme bluegrass elements with varied pace, arrangements and a warmth that feels almost novel in contemporary music.
by Gareth Hipwell