11 songs/37.3 minutes
If you like your blues delivered with swampy blues-rock sweat, American heartland roots and music that rolls in like a Midwestern storm, you are going to embrace Promised Land or Bust with open arms. This CD is life according to Aaron Moreland on guitar (electric, acoustic and cigar box), Dustin Arbuckle on lead vocals and harmonica and Kendall Newby on drums. This is the seventh CD from Moreland & Arbuckle, their first release on Alligator Records. According to Alligator, “Moreland & Arbuckle embody the spirit of our label’s long-time slogan – Genuine Houserockin’ Music”. Backing the trio on the CD are Scott Williams on keyboards, Mark Foley on Bass and Matt Bayles on keyboard and guitar. Bayles also produced, mixed and engineered the CD which was recorded at ARC Studios in Omaha Nebraska. This CD is a follows the 2013 release of 7 Cities, also produced by Matt Bayles.
If you follow Moreland & Arbuckle, you know this trio (since adding drummer Newby in 2006) was formerly a duo, a powerhouse of sound from two men who met at an open mic session in Wichita, Kansas in 2001. Moreland came from a garage band, punk background and Arbuckle was firmly rooted in the blues. A love of the blues brought them together and they have not stopped creatively shaping their own sound ever since. Each of the albums they have recorded has shown musical growth, ventures into new genres and a deepening of the on-stage connection between band members. Promised Land or Bust is no exception. If you aren’t familiar with Moreland & Arbuckle, I strongly encourage you pick up this CD (or vinyl album) and listen to what they deliver. Their sound is unique, their music is raw and real and it comes from the heart and the heartland. As on past albums, they also throw in a few surprises.
The CD opens powerfully with “Take me with You (When you Go)”. This song sets the pace for the songs on this CD, heavy hitters about lost love, passion, redemption and a longing for a life that used to be. These songs are delivered with Newby’s heavy- handed drumbeat that carries the sometimes jam-like, nearly always frenetic guitar mastery of Moreland and the anvil tempered vocals of Arbuckle. Arbuckle rides the guitar with his voice like a tractor taking in dusty grain, stopping only to play his harmonica. Arbuckle’s harmonica adds soaring texture with hints of emotion and tradition to the story he is telling and the music carrying it. At times it leaves you wondering if there is a saxophone in the mix.
Six of the songs on the CD are written by Moreland & Arbuckle. These songs are swampy, full of energy and tell stories about evil women (“Mean and Evil” and “Long Way Home”), late night passion (“When the Lights are Burning Low”) and longing (“Mount Comfort”, and “Waco Avenue”). “Waco Avenue” is a contrast to the the other five songs, it is a slower acoustic song that could easily be at home on country radio or Americana charts. Arbuckle delivers deeply moving vocals with a calm passion complimented by Moreland’s accomplished and tender touch on the acoustic guitar.
Of the other five songs on the CD, two are classic blues covers (“Woman Down in Arkansas” and “I’m a King Bee”) both done in a contemporary in-your-face blues style, In “I’m a King Bee”, Arbuckle plays homage to Slim Harpo, the songwriter who was also a notorious harmonica player from Louisiana. Arbuckle’s vocals and harp bring new life to this song and Moreland’s guitar playing make this one of the strongest songs on the CD. In “Woman Down in Arkansas”, Arbuckle again plays homage to another great Midwestern harmonica player, Lee McBee, a fellow Kansan. This boogie number is done with new breath while giving a big nod to the past. “Long Did I Hide It”, “Why’d She have to Go” and “Let me Down” were written by Ryan Taylor.
“Long Did I Hide It” is a song with a strong gallop beat, somewhat reminiscent of the Delta Blues and is sung very soulfully by Arbuckle with a hook so sharp it will have the chorus on the tip of your tongue for hours. One of the other strong songs on the CD is “Hannah”, written by Mike Hosty. This song is a swampy, dirty murder ballad. It is the perfect medium for the talents of Moreland & Arbuckle as it provides an opportunity for each of the band members to do what they do best – inject energy and mood into their music with as much passion as they can deliver. This is a deep, dark song and would be difficult for many musicians to make as convincing as this band does. “Hannah” tells a story with music that really is an aural video.
What impresses me most with this CD is the growth of this band. I’ve followed them for several years and each CD has shown a venture into new territory while remaining true to the fundamental things that give Moreland & Arbuckle their unique style. They remain loyal to the heartland blues while growing as musicians and always show a willingness to try different musical styles and sounds. Most significantly is their ability to project live sound and energy into their studio recordings with complete mastery of their instruments and vocals. Like the old blues-men who preceded them, Moreland & Arbuckle never forget where they came from. They walk the blues road holding their roots firmly in hand while following their art and passion into new, uncharted territory.