Artist: Dennis Brennan & the White Owls
Album: Live at Electric Andyland
Release date: February 15, 2019
The deal. The blues is all about interpretation. Songs have certain sonic similarities because most, if not all, are built upon the same chord progression. Plus, there’s a culture of artists performing each other’s songs (both with and without credit). But if you look at this blues tradition as an experiment, which of course we all do, it’s actually a useful feature since, by keeping the songs similar, we can control for talent. Dennis Brennan & the White Owls show off quite a bit of talent on Live at Electric Andyland.
Brennan is a Boston singer/songwriter, but here he’s performing the songs of others with his weekly pick-up blues band. Projects like this can come off as embarrassingly self-indulgent, but Brennan and his band deliver sharp, cogent takes on classic-but-not-in-an-obvious way songs.
On “Cuttin’ In,” a Johnny “Guitar” Watson cover, Brennan’s voice is sweet and Tim Gearan’s guitar is unadorned. The song has a quiet intensity that feels pulled straight from 1950s pop. Brennan isn’t trying to outdo Watson, nor does it feel like he’s trying to live up to the original. He’s just grabbing the parts of the song that speak to him, which in this case seems to be the desperate melody.
“Yes I’m Loving You,” a Big Al Downing cover, also has a 1950s groove, a la Fats Domino. Brennan’s version is smaller than the original, with the drums taking a back seat to the vocals. And he throws in a lap steel solo, courtesy of Stephen Sadler, that Downing probably never would have considered. It’s another example of how Brennan and his band are faithful to the original, while managing to slip in their own twists and tweaks.
When Brennan does change things up, he manages to improve on some strong source material. Like when he takes Mose Allison’s laid-back “Foolkiller” and performs it as “Fool Killer,” it sounds like a lost Paul Butterfield Blues Band track. Part of it is the tempo but a lot of it is Brennan’s impressively fiery harmonica work.
Straight talk. This album borrows from the blues but isn’t super bluesy. I love that, but it takes a niche genre and manages to make it smaller. I also love that Brennan’s take on the blues is something other than the all-too-standard long guitar solos and howling vocals. So on the one hand, I applaud his ability to cut these songs in ways that preserve his vision while also being true to the originals. However, if I were investing money in this album, I would have demanded some long guitar solos. Thank goodness less greedy heads prevailed.
The confession. Obviously, I’m not always great about keeping track of physical CDs but the download links are even tougher for me, because at least the CDs serve as a physical reminder that I need to deal with an album. The links just sit in my email. Although I’m working to get more on top of things.
This is the third Vizztone release I’ve missed out on reviewing in a timely manner, though, which isn’t cool. They’re a neat label releasing very, very interesting music.
Closing arguments. Brennan has a great ear for strong tunes and an impressive ability to find the essence of a song. It’s what makes this such an entertaining cover album. Blues fans, and fans of 50s rock and rhythm and blues, are going to want to hear this album. It’s throwback with a contemporary sound and energy.
So much amazing music comes out all of the time. I review what I can as quickly as I can, working my physical and digital piles as efficiently as possible, but things fall between the cracks. Rather than giving up on things that are a little past their prime, contemporary-review-standards-wise, I’m going back for the overflow that deserves to be heard — even if it’s a little late.