The Literary Greats, Black Blizzard

The Literary Greats, Black Blizzard

I have to hand it to The Literary Greats: the band definitely knows how to keep you on your toes. When they release their second album, Ocean, Meet The Valley, back in 2009, I was surprised then to see/hear how much they’d changed from the sound on their self-titled debut outing, turning up the volume and roughening the edges quite a bit.

With Black Blizzard, they’ve done it again; the album starts innocently enough with “Chinaberry Trees,” which takes a slow, murky slide down through a swamp of shrug-heavy resignation and sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place on Ocean. It’s just a little dirty, nicely countryish, and tinged with Kris Becker’s wonderfully cool organ sound, and it sounds like the band’s all set to move right on into a full set of countrified folk-pop goodness. They follow up with the uncertain-yet-smiling beauty of “Coffee and Friends,” which heads in a significantly poppier direction (but still stays pretty low-key), throws on some surprise horns, and uses them to great effect to craft a song Ben Folds would be proud to call his own.

But then the Greats hit “Girl Don’t Be a Fool,” and suddenly you’re wondering when the CD player switched discs. Eschewing the band’s standard (well, I’ll get to that) brand of gentle, rootsy country-pop entirely, the band jumps onto a dirty, soulful Motown groove and rides it for all it’s worth, throwing on great “ooh-ooh” backing vocals and bringing those awesome horns front and center like something from a Daptone release, all over drummer Chris Ginsbach’s head-snapping, Commitments-solid beat.

And then there’s frontman/guitarist Brandon Elam, who comes off less like a Texas-bred Ryan Adams and more like the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson. The end result is a track that comes off like Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” thrown forward a few decades, and it sinks immediately into your skull and refuses to be dislodged. The first few times I listened, my jaw literally dropped open; I was stunned that the Greats could switch so effortlessly, chameleon-like, into this totally different sound.

The band doesn’t stick around in that neighborhood for long, mind you, but smoothly downshifts into the softer, more somber, banjo-inflected folk of “Old Daddy Bill,” which celebrates both the Good Old Days when folks did things themselves and the second-hand history of a long-gone, music-loving grandparent. Then, with “One More Thing,” they switch gears again, jumping up into a bumping, semi-gospel, piano-heavy admonishment of a song that sees Elam proving he can belt it out as well as he can croon.

The back-and-forth goes on throughout Blizzard, with the band hopping nonchalantly between bluesier, heavier, more “rock” tracks like “Marigolds” and more delicate, folkier tunes like the bitterly beautiful “Nothing Worth Keeping.” They further blur the dividing line between the two with both “I’m No Senator,” the guitars in which make me think weirdly of Jimmy Page, and the aforementioned “Coffee and Friends,” with grabs hold of country, pop, and soul elements and mashes them all together into a tight, solid ball.

The high points here are immediate, grab-you-by-the-throat winners, by and large — like “Girl Don’t Be a Fool,” the first time I heard the band blaze through the Drive-By Truckers-like album closer “Mercy Mercy,” with its dirty, raggedy guitars, sweet harmony vocals, and traveling rhythms, I couldn’t suppress the grin that crept its way across my face. “Coffee and Friends” hit me hard, too, with that bumping, almost jaunty rhythm and the confused lyrics that get shifted sideways by the cheery music. And when the band hits the testifying break in the middle of “Marigolds,” I want to hoot and raise my hands in the air.

The truly astounding thing about The Literary Greats is that they’re one of those maddeningly, amazingly skilled bands that really can do everything and somehow never lose their own coherent, impossible-to-miss identity. Whether you’re listening to the band roar through amped-up country-blues or meander their way down a quiet country road under the Texas night sky, it all sounds like the same band.

They’ve managed to nail down their overall sound so completely that they’ve got room to stretch and try new things, and that’s no easy trick. I’ve seen a lot of bands try to pull off the same feat over the years, and frankly, the vast majority embarrass themselves. Not these guys; they’re that damn good. I can’t wait to see where they’re headed next.

(self-released; The Literary Greats -- http://www.theliterarygreats.com/; The Literary Greats (Facebook) -- http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Literary-Greats/14618999533)
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Review by . Review posted Friday, January 28th, 2011. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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5 Responses to “The Literary Greats, Black Blizzard

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Sneak Peeks: New Releases From Something Fierce + Omotai, Coming Up on January 28th, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    […] more appropriate to actually review the damn thing. So if you want to read about that, head on over here, instead. (And yes, it’s really good, in unexpected […]

  2. Tweets that mention SPACE CITY ROCK » The Literary Greats, Black Blizzard -- Topsy.com on January 29th, 2011 at 11:18 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Travis Hopper
    and Travis, The Literary Greats. The Literary Greats said: The
    first review of Black Blizzard!
    http://www.spacecityrock.com/2011/01/28/the-literary-greats-black-blizzard/
    […]

  3. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 2: Yppah + The Literary Greats + Paris Falls + The Soldier Thread + Beat Battle + More on February 26th, 2011 at 2:04 am

    […] guys just couldn’t wait to unleash some more of their music on the world. Having heard (and reviewed) the album, I have to say that the band’s taking kind of a surprising turn, musically […]

  4. SPACE CITY ROCK » The Literary Greats Finally Bring Black Blizzard to the World, Thursday on April 26th, 2011 at 12:32 am

    […] yeah, it’s pretty awesome — see here for the full rundown on what the band’s up to with this release, and then hit the Continental […]

  5. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: Buxton + The Literary Greats + Biscuit Bombs + Glitch Mob + Alps + Sarah Jaffe + More on July 8th, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    […] more & more psyched about the Greats — spent a few hours recently listening to both Black Blizzard and Ocean, Meet the Valley, actually, and re-remembering why I like ‘em so damn much. Sweet, […]

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