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Music Review: Moreland & Arbuckle – Flood

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Chance encounters can lead to great things. When Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle met at an open mic session in Witchita, neither would have guessed their musical partnership would eventually carry them across oceans to entertain U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait. But then, Moreland and Arbuckle aren’t exactly a typical blues band.

In addition to conventional guitars and banjo, Aaron Moreland plays a cigar box guitar, an instrument hand-crafted by a friend. Fretless, it has three guitar strings and one bass string, fed into separate amps. And while Dustin Arbuckle’s harmonicas don’t alter the instrument physically, his style is entirely his own, squalling and raw. They’re augmented by drummer Brad Horner, with a few unobtrusive guest appearances added for good measure.

Given the stripped-down approach, it’s astonishing just how much noise these guys whip up. They hit like a hurricane, with a sound that’s thick and distorted, sweaty and urgent, throbbing with a relentless pulse and restless energy.

While most of the material is original, it’s Little Walter’s “Hate To See You Go” that kicks things off, followed by an absolutely furious live take on the traditional “Legend Of John Henry” that builds to a roaring climax. “Before The Flood” is an atmospheric instrumental interlude that provides a welcome bit of breathing space, and from there it’s a well-paced collection that balances driving boogie-based burners (the Elmore James-like “Don’t Wake Me,” and the one-two punch of “In The Morning I’ll Be Gone” and “What You Gonna Do”) with acoustic romps (“Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone,” written by Ryan Taylor, a friend of the band,  and “Red Moon Rising”). The almost dirge-like “Can’t Get Clear,” a tune suffused with brooding menace in its original incarnation, is reprised as the disc’s closer in a ‘banjo version’ that shows the boys equally adept at creating a mood of menace in a more skeletal setting.

Apart from covers noted, Moreland’s responsible for the bulk of the music, while Arbuckle handles lyrical contributions. Subject material ranges from the topical (“18 Counties,” recounting the very human cost of flooding in the Midwest) to the timeless (“Your Man Won’t Ever Know” is about exactly what one would think). Songs are relatively simple in structure – this isn’t particularly innovative stuff – but Moreland and Arbuckle bring such spooky intensity and/or frenetic energy (always as appropriate) to the table that even familiar forms here sound fresh and invigorating.

Production is perfect for the material at hand; despite the ‘wall of sound,’ each instrument has a distinct presence, but there’s lots of dirt around the edges to keep the sound honest and real; the pristine clarity that Telarc is typically famous for would only spoil the effect, so kudos to whoever had the presence of mind to let Moreland and Arbuckle do their thing without too much polish.

Breathing life into otherwise tired forms through sheer energy and unquestionable conviction, this is a fine collection from a band that’s not afraid to indulge in jam-band craziness if and when it serves the musical muse. Recommended!

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