Some artists seem to spring forth fully formed, finding a successful formula and sticking with it throughout their career. Nothing wrong with that, of course, if the vision is solid enough. But it can get pretty predictable …
To his credit, Toronto-based Dylan Wickens continues to search for a distinctive sound, with Tattoo Black – his third outing overall – sounding quite unlike his earlier efforts. This one finds Wickens exploring darker textures and deeper grooves than ever before, blending a bit of rock into his blues but never straying too far from that sturdiest of musical foundations.
Wickens composed four of Tattoo Black’s nine tracks, but the covers are most telling – among them three compositions from Willie Dixon and one by Muddy Waters. They’re songs that have arguably been done to death – Dixon’s “Don’t Go No Further,” “I’m Ready,” and “The Same Thing,” along with Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied” are all tunes most blues fans will be familiar with. But Wickens gives them all fresh treatments that virtually re-define the songs, without sacrificing their innate integrity. Whether it’s altering the typical tempo (“I Can’t be Satisfied”) or injecting an irresistible dose of funk (“I’m Ready”), Wickens both claims ‘em for his own and lets us hear them anew. There’s also a fairly straightforward, jazzy cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Up From The Skies” that finds Wickens exercising exquisite restraint.
Wicken’s own compositions range from the tough-as-nails title track, with its layered guitars and downright dangerous groove, through the ethereal loveliness of “Giles’ Lullaby,” a tune dedicated (as is the disc itself) to his uncle. “You’re Poison” is easily the collection’s rockiest track, with a stadium-sized hook and big drums, while “Find My Way Home” rides a train rhythm propelled by excellent brush work from drummer Cassius Pereira.
The Grand Nationals – in addition to Pereira, veteran Harpo Peterson is on bass – have played together in various combinations for years, and operate here with what seems a single musical mind, supple yet impeccably tight and musically muscular. Wickens handles all the vocals this time out, with a voice not unlike Eric Clapton at his grittiest, combining assurance and urgency with compelling results. And he’s an absolute monster on guitar, with imaginative yet rock-solid fretwork throughout.
A fine outing, Tattoo Black is another excellent milestone in what’s turning out to be a compelling career. Well done, Dylan!