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Set to come out June 17, this will be Sassparilla’s fifth album. The band is based out of Portland and released their first album, Debilitated Constitution, in 2007. Since then, they have been described as raw, edgy, ragtime country blues; blood-jug punk holler music; and of late, a darker more mellow blues.
Lead songwriter Kevin Blackwell describes the progression of the band’s albums as follows: “They're all metaphors for what's happening in my life. So, the early records were good-time roots-punk records. Then death happened, a friend passed away, and other life stuff happened. I had to face the reality that I'm an adult now."
He has also said there are two sides to every song, the recording and the live version. His ideal is to put out a beautiful album and then have performances to dance to. With this all in mind, one would expect the album to be a further progression towards a brand of beautiful blues truer to themselves and I would say, for the most part, it is.
Like most roots bands, Sassparilla has a complex and varied collection of sounds in their arsenal. The five-person band features vocals, a cigar box guitar, a national resonator guitar, a harmonica, a washtub bass, an accordion, a washboard and drums.
The opening song “Overture” sounds quite similar to The Black Keys. The saxophone, guitar, snares and strong lyrics quickly shift to a more lost and looking blues feel with “Dark Star.” While still using the guitar it now carries a melancholy whine, and is accompanied by a crying harmonica.
Some songs, like “Radio Child," have a greater focus on the vocals, using the instruments as support rather than as a competing focus. This gives them a sound that could be considered indie or even pop. Almost as if to wash their hands clean of the indie sound, the band returns to their roots with a stripped down song that puts the national resonator in the spotlight, “Through the Fence." The only accompaniment it needs is some foot tapping, but the drum beat and vocals are much appreciated all the same.
While it is not a big leap to make, one song, “Cocaine," especially reminds me of The Squirrel Nut Zippers. Perhaps it is the use of the lyrics “Good enough for Granddad” or the incorporation of female vocals but it leaves me wanting more. I wish Pasajero/Hullabaloo featured more of the female vocalist that they teased us with in “Cocaine.” They resurface in “Folks Like Us” which starts with a nice noodling on, I believe, the cigar box guitar which while not featured, continues throughout the song. The beat is nice and bumpy, giving you something to bob to.
“We Are Bold” is another catchy song, with a harmonica that plays a tune, I dare say, reminiscent of the harmonica in Timber but following the in and out patterns of a Bob Dylan harmonica. Let me know if you hear it too.
The album ends with more variety including “Why You Making It Hard.” I especially like the sounds this song starts with, I believe them to be a keyboard. Beyond this tasting of potential synth, the song showcases dancing harmonic music and howling vocals. In comparison, the next song, “The Devil” returns to The Black Keys sound with guitar, drums, and rough male vocals. The album ends with “The Hoot Song," a different sound perhaps comparable to Iron & Wine.
Using confident guitars and powerful vocals to tell stories of mischief and success such as “What The Devil Don’t Know," some songs are more energizing and edgy. Other songs rely on the harmonica and defeated vocals for a gloomy telling of stories of defeat like “You Get What You Deserve.”
I see the album as a balancing out of the pendulum that is this bands genre. With each album they get closer to their core sound. Pasajero and Hullabaloo is honing in on the sound, but it’s not exactly there yet. To be sure, none of the sounds they are making are bad, they just aren’t all their own, and as a result aren’t all their best.
Favorite songs: "We Are Bold," "Radio Child," "Cool Thing"