By Tom O’Connor
With their fourth album Venom & Faith due for release on November 9th, Larkin Poe is sure to fuel their already enthusiastic following with probably their best record yet. Venom & Faith is yet another testament to their innovation as artists. With a blues-roots-rock sound, this sister duo honors their Southern history and hurls it into the present.
Already long-recognized as artists with extraordinary talent by luminaries such as Elvis Costello, expect this confident and sometimes rule-breaking collection to prove him right. This might be ‘Roots’ music at its core, but don’t let the lap steel fool you. The Lovell sisters channel just as much of Ann and Nancy Wilson’s rock spirit as they do the Dixie Chicks’ twang.
Opening an album with a cover song pays off as Bessie Jones’ “Sometimes” lets you know that Blues tradition will be honored but with an unexpected twist. Handclaps and door slam rhythmic elements blend with synth pads, rat-a-tat snare drums and marching band horns to drive home the message “just get on board,” …and you will.
“Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues” is equally soulful and your first real taste of those oft-mentioned powerhouse vocals from sister Rebecca that blend so smoothly with Megan’s close-following backing vocals. Their voices are as seamlessly meshed as their guitar lines, and bounce from call-response to snaky, confident harmonies.
The sisters approach “Honey Honey” from a different direction. Starting with a low and heavy baseline, they sneak in one element after another to establish the kind of sinister mood that begs for the soaring vocals that certainly deliver. Before you realize it, you’re wrapped up in a marching percussion, willing to follow that chorus anywhere. Rebecca’s vocals are rich, bassy, and Megan’s harmonies ply the melody with higher octave bandwidth. The Lovells need no help in the guitar department, but Tyler Bryant’s guest slide guitar adds an extra and welcome layer of swamp to “Mississippi,” which sounds as moss-covered and malevolent as it should.
“California King” captures the difficulty we all face hanging onto dreams that seem further out of reach the harder we chase after them, and how we find the strength to keep the darkness from swallowing us up. If we’re lucky we can go to the home deep in our hearts and “Blue Ridge Mountains” takes us there with churning, buoyant riffs from both sisters’ guitars. This tune is as traditional a sentiment as you’re you’ll find on any Roots/Americana album, but the tale is told with some bold, new-generation rhythmic elements to play against the gospel hints in the slide break.
The journey travels both to the southwest and into the future on “Fly Like An Eagle” which launches with a lonesome, desert feel that you would expect to find on a Calexico album. From there the tune deconstructs with electronic stutter-beats and a sustained note, hovering menacingly in the distant background.
The hard electronic rhythms of “Ain’t Gonna Cry” take the band further into “modern music” but drive a timeless story about finding the inner strength to carry on when giving up would be easier. In some epic dystopian movie, this is the song that would be playing as the skyscrapers all crumble in slow motion. She ain’t gonna cry, but you might. The lyrics, including, “Why am I swimmin’ in the dirty water of a bad decision” are visual and visceral at the same time. These two songs are the Lovells at their boundary-testing best; pushing what is generally “acceptable” in a Southern-influenced group and pulling the audience along with them. This is the realized potential Mr. Costello has been talking about.
Larkin Poe turn back to the traditional with a cover of Skip James’ dark “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” The rhythm is a hammer of handclaps, organic crashes and stomps. The vocals testify to what we know is true; “Times are harder than they’ve ever been before” without sounding like a surrender. You can’t fake the weight in a song like this, and this sister duo delivers. Preach it, sister.
The album closes with an equally weighty original “Good and Gone,” with a heavy stomp to match its heavy-hearted and moving vibe. As is the Larkin Poe trademark, the tone of passion and pain is counterpointed by soaring vocals that offer that final reward. This is a funeral song for any soul who went down swinging hard. But as with gospel music from decades past, it lifts the spirit with song.
To my ears this is almost what I imagine Joan Jett might have sounded like if she had been born and raised below the Mason/Dixon line and had an equally bad-ass sister/partner-in-crime.
For more information on Venom & Faith by Larkin Poe: