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Pretty Lightning - There are Witches in the Woods

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Artist: Pretty Lightning

Album: There are Witches in the Woods

Label: Fonal

Review date: May. 8, 2012

Pretty Lightning are a blues rock band, no doubt about it. They transcend the potential for corniness. But why does the premise of electric blues still feel suspicious?

Forty years ago, when blues worship was at its peak, the form was an ideal. The limits of 12 bars and three chords where seen as a home for infinite invention. The variation was personal. A bluesman’s blues were his own, and it was a pure thing for it, less bastardized than the mere rock ‘n’ roll that had arisen as teen novelty music. A flashy guitarist was parallel to the confessional singer-songwriter. When Jeff Beck came up with a twisted new tone, it was a magic concoction, and a statement on it’s own. It didn’t really matter what was happening to the 12 bars underneath, as long as the top was a new kind of freak.

But pop is a marketplace, and markets get saturated, and for the most part, blues rock still feels like a ruh-roh. Solid-state effect boxes commodified those unique tones. As those transistors displaced the clarinet displays in suburban music shops, the spell was broken, and electric blues riffing was no longer the sound of the mind heading into outer space or wringing out inner turmoil. It was a rig anyone with a summer job could buy. By the end of the 1970s, the future wanted nothing to do with blues. Disco and punk and hip-hop didn’t have much in common on the surface, but none of them bent notes or paused for a soulful moan. And even metal, born out of those heroics, got its own new wave by rejecting roots for rigid thrash.

The last decade didn’t produce much in the way of worthwhile mainstream rock, though it seems like the rep of White Stripes and Black Keys is going to stick. Their albums continue to gather up fans that are too young to remember each band’s debut. Most of their creations would have been welcome by the blues worshippers of 1970. If they’ve made the albums that will outlive Dashboard Confessional in the mainstream, we could have done a lot worse.

Still, it feels a little weird and conservative to be impressed by a long-haired white guy ripping a slide down the neck of Gibson. In the case of Pretty Lightning, that would Sebastian Haas. He knows how to hang on a node and make it lag, weighing down everything around him. And that is rare.

Pretty Lightning follow the Stripes/Keys drummer-guitarist lineup, and augment it in the same way. Drummer Christain Berghoff fills in the bass plod with toms. They get extra texture with analog keys that fuzz out like Edgar Winter fading into Johnny. On There are Witches in the Woods, the vocals are so buried, it probably prevents any kind of breakout. When they do slip through, they’re androgynous, a high rasp like Holly Golightly. Mixed in a different way though, you can imagine these riffs entrancing the post-Guitar Hero hoards. “The Wizard” sweeps in like a cello or viola, but also whines like a stuck pig you can’t catch or kill. Orchestral and earthy all at once.

Which is to say, these two pals from a small town in Germany have hit on an honestly impressive variation of Delta blues. When they summon a spooky drone, it’s been likened to the Amon Duul II hippy shake, but I hear something closer to Junior Kimbrough in its composure and hypnosis. They’ll hang on a single bobbling lick for a long time, and when it changes up, it’s both traditional and unexpected. The most psychedelic tracks, like “The Sound of Thunder,” maintain a folky austerity under the whoosh of reverb.

The buried vocals help keep things fresh. Like the shoegazers, the blustery whole is what stands out more than any one track or refrain, and they revel in a hazy chant. There isn’t anything magic or infinite about Delta bottleneck playing. The fresh variations are far between these days. But when some real dark Saturday night boozing goes down like this, it’s worth some Sunday morning praise.

By Ben Donnelly

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