Album: Hex City
Label: Saustex Records
Release Date: 11/18/2016
The term ‘avant-garde blues band’ is an intriguing one, because it doesn’t immediately bring very many names to mind. In their own experimental style, Churchwood has carved out a rather unique place, using some structural blues, jazz, metal and punk elements– plus a blend of like-minded, lyrically focused artists like Captain Beefheart, Nick Cave and Tom Waits as reference points– to create a mostly, dark menacing sound sprinkled with unpredictable moments. This is their fourth full length release, framing the often complex lyrics of singer/co-founder, Joe Doerr – a poet, college professor and veteran rocker who first made his mark in the early 1980s as Kid LeRoi in the long-running Texas roots music powerhouse, the LeRoi Brothers. Their music is not for the faint of heart; it is both irreverent and literate. You need to dig into this material to appreciate the full breadth of what’s going on. It took me several listens, and then it started to grow on me.
The quintet has two guitarists, bass and drums, with Doerr playing harp and singing. For the first time, they augment a couple of tracks with a horn section, called the Money Shot Brass, and three background vocalists. Joe Doerr comments, “…this is the first album that features background singers (Leila Louise Henley, Michelle Born Kahan and Adrienne Pendrotti Bingamon), I’ve dubbed them the “Nicotine Choir,” handle ethereal backup vocals on several songs. Leila is from the Invincible Czars… Leila does double duty, because she’s a regular member of Churchwood’s own “Money Shot Brass.” She plays sax on a few numbers on this record, and a flute solo on Chickasaw Fire that sounds like it came from Stravinsky’s darker imagination.” Speaking of horns, check out the funky lines in “Metanoia.”
Fortunately, the liners– a 12-page booklet– contain the lyrics. Here’s an example, using the opening lines from one of the strongest songs, “One Big White Nightmare”: “harpoon! the cannibals cheer/as they stick their knives in the white cetacean/achtung! and the bannable mere/runs ruddier than bloody with their ululations.” Obviously this is not light fare, but you start to get the idea that this is indeed an adventurous ride.
Churchwood formed in 2007, and has been on Jeff Smith’s San-Antonio based Saustex label since 2010. Smith has known Doerr and guitarist Bill Anderson since the early 80s. Here are two excerpts from an interview he conducted with them upon the release of their last album, 3: Trickgnosis. First, here’s Joe on his approach to the lyrics for that record: “While such inspiration can come from a variety of sources: conversations, philosophical conundrums, Yeats’ notion that poetry comes from the “quarrel with ourselves,” more often than not, the inspiration for lyrics comes from something I’ve recently read or have been reading. Around the time we started actively writing for 3: Trickgnosis, I was revisiting some of the texts I planned to use for a course I’ll be teaching again this fall. The course traces the underground path of dissemination that Gnosticism took from Provence in the south of France following the Albigensian Crusade that condemned it and its offshoots like Catharism as dangerous heresies, and caused its anti-state, anti-war, anti-literalist influence to spread into various other parts of Europe and eventually the rest of the world…”
Bill Anderson comments on the sound, “Yeah, the trick is making it sound like Churchwood. When we first started the band, I told Joe he could write WHATEVER surreal poetry he wanted, and that I wouldn’t mess with his lyrics, and we’ve pretty much stuck with that. Joe is really good at coming up with words to whatever random music we come up with, and the rest of us are pretty good at either putting clothes on the bare bones of an idea… It’s a given that a prolific songwriter like Joe is going to keep coming in with his own great songs, but what the music and approach you ultimately hear is very much a collaboration.”
No, you are not going to find many Churchwood songs on the radio or on Pandora. This is music you need to give your full attention to, not unlike abstract art.