Essential Tremors (ATO Records)
by Scott Deckman
If music was rated inversely on how much someone pilfers, than J. Roddy Walston & The Business‘ third full-length, Essential Tremors, would have to be considered a good-sounding failure. But when you nick and splice as well as they do – thereby making it your own, well, than that’s an art form in itself.
Not to say there isn’t some originality here – the swampy presentation, and most of all, that strangled duck voice of Roddy come to mind. Put it all together and it’s enough to make you glad they’re such talented thieves. But unlike an act who faithfully apes their masters to the point of near-parody, J. Roddy Walston & The Business use others’ riffs and ideas as paints on their own canvas. The album is named after bandleader (and guitarist/pianist) J. Roddy Walston’s nervous system disorder, which can make his hands shake. One thing’s for sure though, the band aims to move you any way it can.
Opener “Heavy Bells” brings to mind AC/DC both musically and in name (“Hells Bells”; heavy as in “metal”; the word “black” thrown around à la Back in Black, which of course contains the song “Hells Bells”). It features big fat chords that wouldn’t be out of place coming from Angus’ signature Gibson SG. This top-20 Billboard Alternative Songs single may or may not be the strongest number on the platter, and it may not properly represent the rest of the record, but damn it’s catchy, sitting-at-your-computer-surfing-the-net-with-it-ringing-in-your-ears-without-it-playing catchy.
“Marigold” is a rollicking Jerry Lee Lewis update, “Take It As It Comes” is swamp roots reggae with a Jack White witticism thrown in for good measure; the lyrics on this one are particularly interesting, and “Black Light” is the funkiest ZZ Top song you’ve never heard. And Roddy again brings the funk on “Sweat Shock,” which nonetheless sounds like an outtake from Physical Graffiti.
On “Nobody Knows” they nick Big Star’s “Holocaust” slide guitar pretty impressively (I’m assuming it’s a slide guitar here; it also sounds like a pedal steel), with the song almost matching the former’s solemnity. “Nobody Knows” is likely about infidelity, but the chorus can be appropriated to show just how lonely life can be, and in a cinematic way in the mind’s eye, it might even produce a tear or two.
“Hard Times” is a meditation on the evanescence of life’s good times – with a realist’s point of view for the long haul – and employs a familiar riff. “Boys Can Never Tell” has a Van Lear Rose Loretta Lynn feel, and for a fan of Flannery O’Connor, I would expect no less. The thing about Roddy’s lyrics is they’re as cryptic as they come, and given his awkward voice, much of the time you can’t understand him without a lyric sheet anyway, which he does helpfully provide on the band’s website. He may be one of those artists who’s cool with you appropriating the song the way you want to, just like he does with others’ music. (And yeah, as I’ve probably written somewhere and most serious listeners know, it’s likely that all the different combinations of chords have already been laid down on tape or computer. That goes for rhythms, too. So sometimes you can’t help but sound similar to past songs.)
“Same Days” is a herky-jerky Gary Glitter “Rock & Roll, Pt. 2” paean; there’s some homosexual imagery on “Same Days,” as well as on “Boys Can Never Tell” and “Marigold,” but like many of Roddy’s lyrics, one can’t figure out what the hell he actually means. And come to think of it, “Black Light” sounds similar to “Rock & Roll, Pt. 2” too. “Tear Jerk” is another present-time journey into piano-ridden oldies, while “Midnight Cry” rapes at least two rock tropes, but again, one of them, the “Cry, Cry, Cry” backing vocals, along with Roddy’s own seemingly-inherited Balmoreeze, make it worth the pilfering (the Tennessee native moved to Mob Town back in 2004 to accompany his now-wife who attended the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University to study opera; the couple recently relocated to Richmond, VA, where he “developed” the songs for Essential Tremors). Contrarily, he may’ve always sounded like this; I haven’t listened to enough of his prior recordings to discern. Suffice it to say, his voice is the epitome of an acquired taste.
More learned critics might give J. Roddy Walston & The Business the business for the copying, but as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And if Essential Tremors sucked it, none of this would matter. But this is different, and ultimately, very good music.
Actually, it’s damn near great.