Lonesome Shack Prove High Concept & Contemporary On ‘Desert Dreams’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Lonesome Shack is high-concept. They’re a Seattle band led by guitarist Ben Todd, who, the story goes, spent time in a shack in the New Mexico desert, learning traditional blues and bluegrass licks, as so many of us have. The band now operates out of London. And that story explains their sound. It’s blues and bluegrass music, but executed in a contemporary way. The songs on Desert Dreams are sparse, and while they don’t feel unfinished, they almost sound like demos. And that’s the beauty of the album.

People who listen to music so that they can explain it to other people, like, say, your humble correspondent, tend to use categories and comparisons to describe sounds. A band might sound like another band, or an album might recall a certain genre. Desert Dreams challenges that process, though. It echoes other bands and genres, but the sound is truly different.

The arrangements are beautifully skeletal. A song like “Past the Ditch” is just a simple acoustic guitar riff, repeated not so much that it sounds like a loop, but just enough so that it’ll make you think of one. Eventually, Kristian Garrard’s drums come in, playing with machine-like precision, and infusing the track with an urgency. But despite the precision of the performances, the track manages to swing in places.

Todd has an interesting voice. Like his playing, it’s disciplined, but he has an interesting Woody Guthrie-esque twang that he’s either trying to push out into the song, or else unsuccessfully hold in. He’s not scared to hit the higher notes, like any great bluegrass singer, but there’s restraint. Many bluegrass singers use a similar emotional distance in their singing, and he’s obviously tapping into that, but his voice has a certain vulnerability Todd just can’t hide—even behind some deliberately muddy vocals.

The thing about this kind of barebones production is that it allows the band to work with lots of genres. “No Way Back,” with its repetitive groove and defiant vocals could be a metal song with bigger drums, more distortion, and a different singer. And with an acoustic guitar and rougher playing, it could be a gutbucket blues. But in Lonesome Shack’s hands, it’s a distress call, with Todd repeating “I had my time in a lonesome shack / I made up my mind / I can’t go back.” Of course, the lyric leaves the listener with the question of if Todd is referring to prison (presumably in the guise of a character), if he’s referring to his time in the New Mexico shack, or if the band itself is in trouble.

It’s nice when an album connects with the listener on an emotional, not intellectual, level. This reviewer liked Desert Dreams right away, but feels challenged explaining exactly why. Ultimately the power of this album is how the band takes well-known American genres and completely, yet respectfully, reworks them, making them into something almost completely different. One also cannot help but be impressed with the depth of the songwriting accomplished with such little instrumentation. The band has whittled songs down to their barest essence, very much in the spirit of the early blues. Desert Dreams is a wonderful fugue state of familiar-yet-unfamiliar songs.

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