Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
(Editor’s note – as it turns out, this band just released a surprise EP for Halloween – cool!)
Really, country music – or rather, roots music – with its Gothic legacy of cautionary tales, ghost stories, murder ballads and other methods of macabre, allows its artists to frame their dark stories however they choose. Heck, it’s even affected bluegrass.
Coming off my recent conversation on Rachel Brooke and her latest album, too, as someone fascinated by the underground country movement of yesterday, there’s plenty of acts that fit that criteria, even if they’re not for everyone: Those Poor Bastards, Slackeye Slim, The Goddamn Gallows and the .357 String Band, among others, if you want to experience that darkness to its fullest extent; Johnny Cash, Lindi Ortega and Ray Wylie Hubbard – again, among so many others – if you want something a bit more musically accessible.
As for me, Coffin’ Up Blood by the Bloody Jug Band is my go-to listen for Halloween, and as for the background and context … well, there’s not much to say. It was the debut album for a literal jug band that, aside from a very short stint in Ke$ha’s “Timber” music video and an underwhelming sophomore release, is really all we have from them today.
On one hand, I get it. This is the type of band and album that’s easy to judge by the cover, especially when its themes and narratives center exactly on what you think they do: tales from Hell, a song about the Grim Reaper, several about Satan, some about prisoners within Hell … you get it. Here’s the thing, though – with the way they build out from a washboard, washtub bass, jug and percussion, with guitar, mandolin and harmonica added on top of the mix for something more rhythmic, not only is the music itself incredibly accessible, it’s also ridiculously catchy. Really, with the way these melodies and hooks stick in the mind, it’s almost like a roots version of Ghost.
Which is to say that, like Ghost, we should address the elephant in the room – the subject matter. Now, unlike Ghost, where I would just say to get past that uncomfortable embrace and go with the flow of the music, I would say the lyricism on this album is sharper than it’s ever gotten credit for. It’s dark, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously to the point of ever being more than story songs from an unlikely perspective. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s sympathetic to these sordid characters’ perspectives, but it is empathetic.
It’s fun, too, like how “Devil’s Hand” is about a trip above ground for the Devil to pick up women, only for him to find out that they’d rather hang with God and he’s just left to return to his underworld domain, all while throwing in a well-earned Kenny Rogers reference, of all things. Or take “Reaper’s Madness,” which is pretty much a literal explanation of the Grim Reaper’s everyday routine, stealing souls, kicking ass and taking names. And tracks like “Blood Train,” with the chugging groove to emphasize that locomotive-like precision, or the AC/DC cover of “If You Want Blood,” of all things, can excel off insanely catchy hooks or, in the latter case, a huge swell of melody that translates well in this setting.
But I’d also say the themes run a bit deeper than that and don’t contain themselves to the gimmick in which they may have been intended. Part of that has to do with the two lead vocalists – dubbed Cragmire Pearce and Stormy Jean – both of whom carry a sharp amount of personality, but are also always distinctively playing things to a serious degree; Pearce through his huskier lower register that makes the low-end anger of “Blacktooth Growl” stand out, with Jean’s backing swell adding a really fantastic, ghostly presence to the mix. Seriously, she’s carrying the low-end of “Blacktooth Growl” even better than the shuffling percussion, and when she’s able to carry “The Pain” on her own, she’s even better. Really, my biggest nitpick with this album has always been a lack of better interplay, not only between our two vocalists, but even with the vocal interplay from the band members themselves. Sure, shouts and cheers open “Graverobber Blues” to pretty foreboding effects, and I like the interweaving on “Roadkill Boys” to symbolize the group-like feel of its subject matter, even if it’s a weaker cut. But it feels like this album could have punched one step higher, too. Again, going back to our two vocalists, when they play off each other well on “Devil’s Hand,” it works exceedingly well.
Again, though, I circle back to the point of framing these stories like they do, and while there’s certainly cuts like “Graverobber Blues,” “Blood Train” and “Cold, Cold Sweat” that are aiming to be fun and little more, there’s also a fair amount of questionable subtext here, namely in how bad decisions only create a domino effect for others. “Boy Named Lucy” is a pretty cute interpolation of a certain similarly titled Johnny Cash tune, but it centers on the Devil as a youth and how others bullied him by shortening his name from Lucifer to Lucy, fueling his inevitable hatred. Yeah, OK, we’re obviously not taking this literally by any means, but it reveals a much darker plot that, sadly, reflects certain parts of reality, and where the Satanic imagery is all just metaphorical in establishing much darker than that. It’s why “Hidden Good” operates on a similar level, framing how an abused child runs away and grows up to be a Michael Myers-esque killer who hunts for sport. It’s worth noting, too, how both of these tracks are a bit more playful with the rapid-fire, jumpy arrangements to reflect the core of that rotted innocence. On the other hand, “Blacktooth Growl” is more menacing in the low-end simmer of its groove, reflecting a darker portrait of an alcoholic threatening the bartender to just hand him his coping mechanism – something more hardened for the adult in him.
And it’s never trying to frame any of these characters in the right, mind you; rather just establish their point-of-view and how bad decisions only led to more. Though I will say it’s amazing how epic and righteous the prison riot-esque tone of “Chained to the Bottom” comes across, with prisoners working together to escape their literal Hell, with an ending left up to interpretation, and another moment where Jean nails that drawn-out swell – it’s easily the best track here. But there’s also something to be said for “Moon Bathing,” which rightfully does play things a bit more vague in establishing the lone, presumably murderous outlaw out there fending for himself in the wild, noting how a lifetime of abuse and loneliness turned him into what he is. It’s a moment not aiming for straightlaced humor or overbearing darkness in its approach, and I’m not sure what to make of it.
I will say, however, that even despite the intended focus, there’s a surprising amount of versatility on display, both in the fantastic instrumental performances and tones as well as the stories themselves, which go beyond a gimmick for something much darker … sadder. I do wish we had more from this band, but as it is, this is a damn-near masterpiece of an introduction. It won’t be for everyone – even after decoding it through this review – but give it a chance, especially today, and you may be surprised.