Bloodkin | Black Market Tango | (Cosmo Sex School Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Athens, Georgia’s Southern rockers Bloodkin have a few things working against them:
First is their moniker which invokes a death metal outfit and is not indicative of the smart, literate roots rock they have been cranking out since 1994’s debut. And, while it’s great to get name checked by their far better known local peers Widespread Panic (who covered some Bloodkin tunes) and Drive-By Truckers, those recommendations have not translated into attracting a substantial number of fans from those acts shifting over to Bloodkin’s camp.
Also, there hasn’t been a new studio release in over a decade (2009’s Baby, They Told Us We Would Rise Again, another in a long line of witty album titles, was their last), which doesn’t bode well for establishing a lasting legacy for a band that isn’t a household name even in the circles they run in. How many actually purchased 2013’s over $100 five-disc box of unreleased Bloodkin music is unclear, but that set is a telling indication of just how prolific singer/songwriters and childhood friends Daniel Hutchens and Eric Carter, the founders and only consistent members, have been.
So Black Market Tango has an uphill battle before you even hit play. Factor in its sprawling length (16 tracks/75 minutes) for an even harder sell, making Bloodkin’s return a key next step in a career that frustratingly hasn’t attracted the popularity over the decades their catalog and work ethic deserves.
The album was recorded, pre-pandemic, in Bloodkin’s home of Athens, GA and the cohesive feeling of having the five pieces were in the room at the same time goes a long way to making this such a success. In addition to Hutchens’ and Carter’s guitars, John Neff adds pedal steel and dobro, bringing a dose of country to these singer/songwriter tracks. Bass and drums stay in the background, allowing the two frontmen room to spin out lyrics about life, somewhat dated politics (“There’s a virus in the white house…and he wants to build a wall”) and relationships with a combination of Tom Petty’s sturdy melodic structure and Drive-By Truckers’ Southern guitar drive. There’s a distinct Crazy Horse feel when the guitars crank up on tracks such as “Trashy,” “Beneath the Streets of Nashville” and the creatively titled “John Coltrane in Nagasaki,” the latter based on a true story about the legendary jazz saxist going to the titular city to “retune the molecules.” It’s a potent example of Bloodkin at its best, spinning out crackling concepts with memorable melodies and a minimum of fuss.
There are subtle strains of blues and even modified gospel running under some of the band’s music. That’s especially true for the ballad “Her Blues” featuring Neff’s crying pedal steel, and the swampy soul of “Metal and Wood.” A few pop oriented selections like “Freedom Fizz” with its tack piano and the Truckers’ Mike Cooley on banjo help balance the vibe.
The closing, moody 12 minute epic “God’s Bar,” originally on the box and repeated here, shows how expertly Bloodkin extends a lengthy gothic story song without diluting its tension or shifting into the jams Widespread Panic is known for. The basic track comprised of two separate but connected pieces, was amazingly recorded in a single take.
Between its expansive musical palette and the amount of material, there’s plenty to unpack on Black Market Tango. But even if it’s too much to absorb in a single sitting, there are no dull moments or even songs that should have been edited out of the double album playing time, which says plenty about Bloodkin’s talents.
It’s great to have them back and even more impressive to hear the group at or near the peak of their powers. Maybe this will be the one to break them to a larger audience.
Better late than never.
Photo by Flournoy Holmes