Smile Politely

Dust never sleeps: The Dirty Feathers’ Midnight Snakes

“There needs to be more of that.” That’s my reaction after a first pass listening to the new album from local rockers The Dirty Feathers. Their debut full-length, Midnight Snakes, keeps it brief, but partially due to their outstanding economy of melodic moodiness and four-on-the-floor, tube-amplified distorto-rock.

As a point of reference on brief albums, Weezer’s Green Album, which came out ten years ago this past May, clocked in at just 28 minutes and 20 seconds. While no Pinkerton (as far as fans like me are concerned, anyway), the Green Album certainly rocked, and contained more than enough sound and fury to showcase the band’s identity. So too it is with Midnight Snakes The Dirty Feathers manage to pack every ounce of their style and substance into an album that takes less than a half hour to listen to, but that warrants more than a few revisists — sometimes within the same day.

But at right around 28 minutes, Midnight Snakes is also not quite enough. Not to say that you feel short-changed by the album. Rather, at the close of those 28 or so minutes, the listener is just getting primed for further sonic explorations, retro callbacks, and ethereal creepiness. The Feathers have arrived at a series of tracks that establish their musical identity as unique without pegging the weirdometer well past redline.

At points, Midnight Snakes conjures up submerged melancholy — a combination of underwater dementia and landlocked lust. At others, it resembles an adrenaline-fueled, peyote-induced roadtrip through the Mexican desert in a ’70 AMC Rebel, windows down and throttle wide open, undertaken from the discomfort of a long-since worn out basement couch.

Incorporating an organ prominently in the instrumentation adds an Edgar Winter-esque, pace-pushing dose of overdrive (not the Bachmann-Turner variety). Imagine if Procul Harum had spent time in the desert listening to scratchy Tom Waits records while downing energy drinks and psychotropics. Additional psychotropics, anyway.

There are two distinct styles mingling on the album. The first is the sort of ambient unease reminiscent of another local act, Shipwreck, a band that two of the Feathers hail from (Vlad Brilliant and Harman Jordan). So you would expect as much, or you should. But that doesn’t mean they’re slinging the same hash — this is a distinctly new take on two of the bandmembers’ backgrounds.

The second is…a lot of things, in truth. Retro psychadelica, filth rock, garage noise, fuzz rock, and more, all of which are bolstered by a solid foundation of rhythm that lets each song progress unimpeded toward its conclusion.

Track 1, “Echo Hands,” opens the album (after a little tongue-in-cheek guitar play, that is) with a loud and bouncy stanza that introduces the band authoritatively. Every player is present and accounted for before the song settles into its structure. Right off the bat, the organ is front and center, establishing the tonal quality of the entire piece. Fuzz on the vocals, distortion on the guitars, and a bit of reverb everywhere — it’s evident from the start that the goal was to create a sound that hearkened back to early psych rock without coming off as derivative or, worse yet, carbon copied.

Track 2, “Blue Flame,” settles the album into cruise control after the raucous opener. A bit of Leslie speaker effect on one of the guitars as well as a midtempo arrangement gives the verses a softer feel. Electric piano rather than organ compliments the choice and the song structure, but all bets are off for the choruses, as the tempo stays the same but everything else gets hoisted above the realm of sensible volume, before dissipating to guitar and vocal for the ending.
The title track, “Midnight Snakes,” holds down the third slot on the album. Piano opens with the basic chord structure of the song before drums and vocals jump in to provide the overall tone, and everything gets pegged to 11 when distorted organ, wailing guitars, and saturated vocals take over.

“Foreign Tongue” calls on the bass line to set the tempo as discordant guitar feedback and unintelligible lyrics fade into being, overwhelmed eventually by jumping organ and guitar careening toward the final three tracks. As a mid-album instrumental it works, but seems more appropriate as an opener (ala Reverend Horton Heat’s “Big Sky” instrumental track starting off the Liquor in the Front album and transitioning to the full-on retro rocker “Baddest of the Bad”) than an aural bridge.

“Pistol Hills” is bathed in a sand-choked southwestern sound that makes it fit for inclusion in a Sergio Leone wide-angle shot. The first verse, particularly, brings to mind a long, slow walk through a desolate desert, punctured by a fever pitch chorus. The pattern continues to the conclusion, where the scene devolves into manic meltdown, then uneasy tranquility signaling the end.

Track 6, “Be Forewarned,” starts with deceptively mellow (though noticeably creepy) guitar and vocals, crescendoing into a dark blend of hip-swaying swagger and psychedelic psychosis rolled into one — If Jim Morrison had been around to write devilishly twisted lyrics inspired by an episode of Dexter, “Be Forewarned” might have been the result.

“Death Trip,” the final song, cranks the 8-track and hops back in the car for a great escape with musical victims locked in the trunk. The opening line is well-suited to close a record like this, begging the question “Was it good for you?” The album ends with even more energy than it began, an exclamatory conclusion to a solid debut for the Dirty ones.

Overall production values are slightly rough, which is to be expected (and somewhat welcomed) from a self-service effort like this album. Having been recorded, mixed, produced, and engineered by the band at home, it’s only natural. And yet, the production, the fit and finish overall, matches the soundscape created by the songs. It also offers a snapshot of the live energy that the band brings to their shows. If you’ve not taken one in yet, listen to the album, then catch them on stage. You’ll recognize the intensity within the first song or two of the set.

If you’re wary of buying albums until you’ve had the chance to sample, the band seems okay with that. The entire album is streaming on their webpage, ready for repeated listens. But to fully appreciate the pyretic highs and nervously somber lows, grab the physical album and find a way to route it through a vintage receiver and a pair of speakers taller than your roommate.

The Dirty Feathers play Sunday, October 9 at The Highdive in Champaign, with Peelander-Z and Those Darlins.

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