Although I grew up fifteen minutes north of the Kentucky border, it’s a safe play to label me a blue-state Yankee. I enjoy trendy beverages and own expensive jeans. In my little neighborhood, I trudge through the salted streets and urban sprawl just long enough to fill my belly and clear my head; I possess only vague knowledge of what threshers, balers, and mills do. On a lengthy north-south route through the storied landscape of Alabama, I ordered home fries with my waffles, immediately backslapped by a wicked waitress sneer, pounding home two distinct certainties. First, America’s south is molded by tradition, tough labor and an amazing amalgam of history, and culture. Second, and equally important, a guy like me doesn’t fit in at a Muscle Shoals diner, and I should always order grits instead of home fries.
For clarity, there’s always something envy-inducing and distinctly cool about southern rock straight from the well itself. Jack White, case in point, can always siphon the overall context of music from America’s southern musical heritage, but I liken it to me scarfing down a bowl of grits; it lacks at least a twinge of authenticity. Jack’s my favorite artist, don’t misconstrue, but I’m sneakily drawn to legitimate southern rock n’ roll from legitimate southern places. This is not to say northerners cannot develop and draw from the well, as years of British and American artists have obviously done; I don’t purposely intend to project naivete. Duh, my friends. I just like my water from the source, and think a band who’s really not doing anything new or emerging can still impress and delight with standard conventions; southern rock bands, by nature, draw the attention of jealous northerners like me. Vulture Whale’s eponymous debut, dropping on February 3rd from Skybucket Records, jolts my ire. It is straightforward Alabama rock n’ roll that bruises with lyrical jabs and haymakers. Nothing new. Everything good.
Vulture Whale has an uncanny panache for bridging staunch and riffed-out coolness with dirty punk undertones seamlessly into accessible and familiar sounds. Yankees and Confederates unite here with ease, and the Birmingham quartet proves north/south reconciliation required no fighting, just Les Pauls and a couple cranked up stack amps. ”Tweedy” starts the garden party off in classic form; it’s a track less grounded in the hook and more in raw gain and loud energy, boot-scootin’ its way into my favorite track of the record, “Head Turner.” The track drips with shifty coolness and wit, the speaker addressing his chica with lines like “I’ll let you know when you need old lady shoes” and “They’ll never say you have a radio face / All your friends look like your mutha.” Endearing and sweet behind the sharply sarcastic sentimentality, the track is the pinnacle of the album. I question the track’s placement on the overall flow of the LP, but to defend, it serves as a rocking precurser of tone for the record.
The middle chunk of the record continues on the same vein, and the stylistic consistency is a boon here. The short-lived “Guillotine” clocks in at a mere 1:47, but melts faces with it’s dissonant background wailing and speed riffing confidence. “Sugar” begins as a sex-laced singalong slow jam, but it’s edginess dismisses any thought of conventional balladry. Sugar, tell me somethin’ / why you wear me / like a watch. . .You’re not the devil. . . but you’re somethin’ / of a fuck up / of the mind. Lester Nuby’s chomping guitar speeds the pace of the song about midway through and matches the quirky obsessive lyrics Wes McDonald dishes out. As the mid-point of the album, “Sugar” is arranged beautifully and it’s leathered appeal tenses muscles and swings for the fences. We’ve given this album multiple listens and it grows and pitches something new upon each run through.
The album is crisply recorded and well-produced, launching it way higher than most debut efforts on sound quality alone. Any element of fuzz or or flaw is intentional, as the band knows what they’re doing, keenly aware of not only their genre, but also their connection to other arenas. Jake Waitzman’s percussion pulses from track one to ten as Keelan Parrish provides the muscle behind the curtain on bass, both thumping along as each track spans post-punk and southern blues in a refreshingly unique ass-kicking style. Each of the band members have pretty extensive backgrounds stylistically and we can’t shake the vibe that their talent is laid bare without sacrificing their roots. It’s purposely rough around the edges and in all the right spots. Spin referred to them as Kings of Leon minus the ass-waggin’, and we concur, yet amend by emphatically pointing out that VW’s skill far surpasses the early KOL albums. If KOL earned the tag phrase “Southern-fried Strokes,” Vulture Whale’s southern-fried concoction adds gravy, mashed taters, and a vintage wine to the table. To be blunt, I think Vulture Whale listened to cooler records.
As the band slams and rocks out in the anthemic “Tote it to Cleveland, AL” the ultimate quandary is laid out, and we have the answer. When they need to tote their gig somewhere “cool” they’re obviously referring to Cleveland, Alabama. Humbly, and with a plate full of grits ready, we have another Cleveland they can tote their sound to. With a no frills and straightforward sound, Vulture Whale is immediately worth the purchase on Tuesday, and like a loud civil war bugle horn sounded from way up north down to Alabama, my envious and vicarious enjoyment thickens with this album in my arsenal.
Vulture Whale – “Tote it to Cleveland, AL”
Vulture Whale – “Sugar”