Graded on a Curve:
Luke Winslow-King,
Everlasting Arms

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Luke Winslow-King’s been on the scene for a while now, and Everlasting Arms is his second LP for the venerable folks over at Bloodshot Records. Featuring a crack band and additional vocals from wife Esther Rose King, its 14 tracks illuminate considerable breadth based in a deep and rewarding knowledge of music history.

Admirable stylistic range, undeniable instrumental ability, and an uncommon understanding of what will and won’t work; it all applies to world traveler and scholar Luke Winslow-King. When he’s really digging into the pre-WWII stuff he can resonate like a rootsier, less persona-driven Leon Redbone, and when dishing more modern he lands securely in the vast realms encompassed by Americana.

Winslow-King’s self-titled self-released debut materialized in 2008, and a year later came Old/New Baby. The first for Bloodshot was 2013’s The Coming Tide, the record also crediting his then fiancée Esther Rose on its cover. Across the three, the acumen and execution have become increasingly hard to question. The quibbles generally seem to be over the nature of Winslow-King’s voice.

I tend to view his singing as integral to the whole experience. While a vocalist far from amazing, he does get the job done, in large part due to the thankful eschewal of attempts to replicate the cadences of hard living. Winslow-King is the byproduct of extensive higher education, and as too many descendants of Waits have sadly already discovered, there’s basically no way he can effectively sound like he just crawled out of a drainage ditch somewhere. Sincere emotional intent will suffice.

The album begins with the title tune, a revamping of Anthony Johnson Showalter’s gospel nugget; film watchers perhaps remember it from Bad Bob Mitchum’s eerie rendering in Charles Laughton’s masterful The Night of the Hunter; it’s also in the Coen Brother’s pretty good remake of True Grit. Winslow-King infuses it with bluesy panache, the result full-bodied but not slick. Like her hubby, Esther Rose King’s vocals are unfussy, her singing and washboard adding weighty flair.

“Swing That Thing” turns up the amps for a slide blues stomper holding an underlying streak of rockabilly, Esther Rose bringing the sweet backing sass. It’s sourced from the stated influences of Mississippi Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside, though Winslow-King’s Delta boogie is less rough around the edges, fitting comfortably into the broad, inviting warmth of Everlasting Arms’ spectrum of Americana.

To elaborate, “Levee Man” finds the vocals smoothly delivered, Winslow-King wisely letting the adroit jazziness carry the ambiance; the arsenal includes rowdy trumpet, snaky clarinet, rattletrap washboard and piano straight out of the saloon. Like much of this record, “Levee Man” achieves period flavor without straining for authenticity.

Contrary to what the title might suggest, “Graveyard Blues” opens as a down-tempo piece for piano and voice. However, the abrupt arrival of matrimonial harmony signals the entry of full band, the track gradually adopting an appropriate aura as it progresses toward conclusion with the atmosphere of a funeral march.

“Cadillac Slim” could inspire one to think Winslow-King is tooling around town in a luxury car, but no; he’s simply a skinny cat born in Cadillac, Michigan, though his theme song derives from ’50 New Orleans R&B (he in fact went to college and currently lives there). The boldness of production and wealth of instrumentation implies the hand of Lenny Waronker or possibly even certain efforts helmed by Alligator Records’ Bruce Iglauer. Along with further fun vocal interplay, “Cadillac Slim” sports an outstanding guitar solo backed up by rich ensemble horns.

Next is “La Bega’s Carousel,” a version of an early 20th century Virgin Islands’ protest song that gets hybridized with Dixieland. Here the mix leans to the latter, especially when everyone lays-out save for Ben Polcer’s trumpet and Benji Bohannon’s drums, the duo engaging in a brief dust-up before everybody jumps back in and Polcer wails for the exit door to Preservation Hall.

Returning to the guitar blues is “The Crystal Water Springs,” the cut drenched in a swampy vibe as Bohannon lends it the feel of a drum corp. It’s followed by “Wanton Way of Loving,” Esther Rose taking the lead on a slice of brightly-lit Americana that also introduces the album to the textures of Matt Rhody’s fiddle.

So far so pleasant, but “Interlude I (As it Goes)” deepens the environment a bit. Providing a succinct vocal-less scenario opening on Cassidy Holden’s sinewy upright bass as it interacts with Winslow-King’s electric picking and Bohannon’s rhythm, it heads into “Last Night I Dreamed My Birthday,” Everlasting Arms’ highpoint. It slowly builds upon a folky chunk of writing as achy fiddle and mournful horns hint at Eastern European brass bands.

As Winslow-King studied Czech music at St. Charles University in Prague, I don’t think this is a stretch. It eventually launches into gruff rock maneuvering led by the heaviness of uncoiled slide. A hard act to follow, and the stridently singer-songwriter-like “Domino Sugar,” which sounds as if Little Feat is accompanying Van Morrison if he’d been born in Atlanta, GA instead of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is something of a letdown. Maybe it’s just the ’70s tone of the electric piano (or the word domino, even).

It is concise and stylistically divergent enough to keep the interest from waning, and likewise “Interlude II” registers as even more fragmentary than its titular predecessor, though this shouldn’t be assessed as a shortcoming. With the exception of Bohannon’s rumbling floor tom and a smattering of cymbals, it’s completely Winslow-King’s show, peals of dust-bowl ruggedness serving as an amped-up intro to the bluesy/jazzy ‘30’s strut of “Home Blues.” The lengthiest ensemble showcase on the LP, it should appeal to fans of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Placing the guitar front and center, “Traveling Myself” deposits us into the Delta one last time; at points it’s as if a National Steel is getting manhandled by a highly caffeinated Son House at the ’64 Newport Folk Festival. It closes Everlasting Arms, a record finding Winslow-King slipping into artistic territory suiting him very well.

His first couple albums, in particular the debut, offer up a mild-mannered air reminding me of his fellow Michigander/Interlochen Arts Academy attendee Sufjan Stevens. Old/New Baby began the transition away from that model, and The Coming Tide shook it off almost totally; Everlasting Arms solidifies the direction and bodes well for future endeavors.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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