Review: Woodbrain – Swimming In Turpentine

Posted on: Monday, Sep 21, 2009

Woodbrain - CD Cover


“Swimming In Turpentine”

(Yellow Dog Records: YDR 1678)

Here’s another contender in the ‘best thing I’ve heard all year’ stakes . . . a sparkling release from the Portland, Oregon four piece, Woodbrain – Joe McMurrian (guitars, banjo and vocals), David Lipkind (harmonica), Jason Honl (bass) and Jimi Bott (drums) – a heady mix of blues, rock, Americana and more.

Formerly known as the Joe McMurrian Quartet, before the band leader decided that all the members were putting so much in to the music that they needed a new name, they acknowledge the greats of the past such as Skip James, Robert Johnson, and RL Burnside, but include more recent influences such as Led Zeppelin, Cream and Jimi Hendrix. His own guitar playing is influenced by the likes of Ry Cooder, Leo Kottke and John Fahey.

Although the line-up, instrumentation-wise, may indicate a typical blues four-piece they are from it on the 13 tracks here on “Swimming In Turpentine”, a release that will appeal to anyone who likes their music varied, with the opening “Port Chicago Authority” being a good example . . . with a rolling, almost jam-like feel to it, from McMurrian’s tough guitar work to David Lipkind’s harmonica – he is a very modern player, in the Jason Ricci mould, and very adventurous, but also with a more traditional style when required.

The driving country blues of “Northbound” follows, with more marvellous harmonica work in a Sonny Terry mode; “Dig” – which was learned by the band apparently 10 minutes before it was recorded – sees Joe McMurrian on the most unusual wah-wah slide banjo, with the rhythm section of Honl and Bott swirling around him, all very fine indeed! The great Jimi Bott’s playing throughout is superb, as would be expected from a man who has been in both The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers.

Two of the album highlights are the superb “Broken Window”, driven by McMurrian’s slide guitar and again, Lipkind’s fluent harmonica; but possibly best of all, the dark and brooding, but superbly atmospheric, “Storm Clouds” – an acoustic ballad with possibly Joe McMurrian’s best vocal and nice acoustic guitar and harmonica – six and a half minutes of perfection!

“Turpentine” has a rocky uptempo frenetic groove, before a change of pace again on “Hurricane Town”, with a definite touch of Seattle master Pearl Jam in it. The band cover the great Bert Jansch’s “Black Water Side”, before a couple of band compositions close proceedings – “Next Stop” with a rambling jazzy intro, and as far away from traditional blues as you can get, and even more marked on the last track, “Pottsville Conglomerate” – a very free-form piece indeed, that builds during it’s seven minute course.

Woodbrain make music within the blues tradition, but are not afraid to diversify and take chances . . . that’s what maybe makes this release so appealing. The four musicians are all excellent and together combine to produce a very fine album, that comes highly recommended!


woodbrain band photo

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