Wilkinson Blades – 4:00 AM (Shiftone Records/ October 30 2012)
By Charles Agar
The first thought that popped into my mind upon receiving 4:00 AM, the debut record by Portland’s Wilkinson Blades, was whether their name is inspired by a certain brand of razors. While the band appear relatively clean-shaven in photos, that’s actually where any link to grooming products ends. Rather, the name derives from singer and primary songwriter Steve Wilkinson, the band being completed by Grant Cumpston, Johnny Huck, Jon Beyer & Rich Landar.
Originally conceived by Wilkinson as a solo project, Wilkinson Blades have gradually grown into a full-fledged touring band. Their sound on 4:00am is steeped in classic Americana twang, evoking dusty roads and late night drinking holes. Wilkinson’s gravelly, lived-in vocals prove surprisingly versatile throughout an album that navigates its way around more stylistic shifts than your typical alt-country record. However, the album’s curious gestation – recording at a variety of different studios and often with only some of the members present at each session – makes for a slightly uneven record top to bottom.
‘No Exit’ kicks things off with tasteful layers of guitar feedback over a repetitive rhythmic thrum. Climbing lead guitar figures threaten to spill over into noise as the song climaxes, and it serves as a musically strong introduction to the band. ‘Bug River Blues’ recalls the Handsome Family with its gothic chug and rippling tremolo guitars, while sweet vocal harmonies provide a contrast to Wilkinson’s deep, weathered singing. ‘No One Alive’ is the most immediate, hook filled song here, its descending chord patterns and distorted guitars doing a decent job of approximating Uncle Tupelo’s country thrash.
However there’s no time to settle back and get comfortable. ‘Scared of You’ sticks out like a sore thumb, resembling a kind of creepy Tom Waits-esque shuffle, its sinister plucked strings announcing that the group is not afraid to experiment beyond well-trodden Americana norms. They switch things up again on ‘Some Velvet Morning’, a Lee Hazelwood cover, during which Wilkinson croons over rich keys and mournful strings. This stylistic ping-ponging proves to be somewhat disorientating, especially on the first couple of listens, disrupting the momentum of the middle part of the record.
After the stately ‘Crippled Mind’, the immediacy and up-tempo vigour of ‘Sunshine Now’ could almost be a different band entirely. Although the track is still an amiable enough 60s flavoured pop nugget, it highlights that maybe there’s too many disparate ideas flitting around in Wilkinson’s head at the moment, and not enough cohesion being brought to the table by his band-mates.
Despite this slightly meandering middle section, 4:00 AM finishes strongly, and the closing tracks go some way to re-establishing consistency. ‘Holding Me Down’ definitely plays to the band’s strengths, creating an Appalachian feel with its banjos, slide guitar and the insistent shuffle of brush-stroked drums. ‘It Might Hit Me’ thrives on the reassuring guitar crunch of the more raucous cuts on Wilco’s 1996 classic Being There, while ‘Wishing I’d Never Known You’ conjures a cinematic American vastness. Despite some dodgy lyrics, ‘Walking in the Snow’ deftly adds xylophone and droning, e-bowed guitar to the regular alt-country instrumentation.
Wilkinson is an undeniably talented songwriter and musician in the Americana mould, as evidenced by the stronger tracks here. As his new band begin to gel even more on the road and refine which aspects of their sound work best, it bodes very well indeed for future releases.