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Music Review: The Malchicks – To Kill a Mockingbird

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Blues music doesn’t need new interpreters, does it? What have we ever heard from, say, Eric Clapton that Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf haven’t already injected like morphine, years ago, into our veins? (Note: if you take this as criticism of Clapton, you’d be right.)

What’s left for us to feel? Nothing new, that’s for sure. We feel what we feel when we listen to good blues — sad or lonely or murderous or hurt — and these things will not change, no matter how many blues bands (and there may be thousands) come and go. But their intensity may — if we are fortunate enough to encounter blues that sounds ancient and honest, yet is newly conceived and played as if for life and death, the crucial piece. That would be why we’d need new interpreters — the intensity.

That would be The Malchicks.

On the cover of The Malchicks’ first US release, To Kill a Mockingbird (Zoho Records) are murder and theft. A KKK-labeled mule is wandering away — mule-ignorant, unknowing — from a distended tree, on the extended trunk of which are hanged two (presumably) Ohio voters, one of the two holding an Ohio-labeled satchel, likely carrying election votes that will never be counted. The cover is incendiary and not subtle. And so too the band, especially when covering the most revered of blues classics.

Scarlett Wrench, one half of The Malchicks (a UK band, no surprise there), drew that cover. And she sings the blues as nakedly and honestly and angrily as she undoubtedly sketched out that cover: which is half the reason why The Malchicks are brutally, relentlessly good at what they do, which is interpret the blues.

The other reason is George Perez on guitar, slide guitar, banjo, bass, occasional vocals. For a teenager who is sixteen or seventeen, he plays like he knows his days, even now, are numbered. Similarly, Wrench (same age) has years and years of anger and ache tucked away in her dusky, fearless and sorrowful vocals. Her voice is reminiscent of Margo Timmins’ but with the capacity for grit and growl.

Like a burned out barn band, The Malchicks sing and play the blues as if it’s the late 40’s and they’re scouring with John Lee Hooker the juke dives of Detroit, his opening act, looking for any righteous gig. Note, too: they cover Hooker on To Kill a Mockingbird.

On this first stateside release, The Malchicks rework blues classics no one should ever cover. “Little Red Rooster,” “Boom, Boom,” “I Put a Spell on You” and pull it off with a gritty and naïve integrity. In doing they allow us to “feel” these songs in a new way, a feat indeed. They also cover Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” and add an ironic, near-jangly kind of poignancy to Dylan’s “Corrina, Corrina.” Wrench also renders the traditional “Black Girl” with a subdued, subterranean anger.

The Malchicks are a blues duo, teenagers at that. But more than anything, they lay down an astonishingly soulful sound. It’s all verve and preternatural confidence and guts while staring down the ghost of, say, Willie Dixon or any other bluesman covered on To Kill a Mockingbird. This is no more attributable to Wrench’s ghostly voice than it is to Perez’s vein-opening slide guitar work. Each would be lost without the other. A lot is at stake. It’s the blues.

It’s also one of the finest releases of the year.

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