Graded on a Curve: Barrence Whitfield
& the Savages,
Under the Savage Sky

Three albums into an expectations-defying return, Boston vets Barrence Whitfield & the Savages have yet to strike a disappointing note. A brand new full-length finds them continuing to escalate the power and rawness in an already potent attack and honing a dozen selections into brisk soul-punk mayhem. Featuring a strapping batch of originals and a few wisely-chosen covers tucked into a spiffy Alfred Hitchcock/Saul Bass-inspired sleeve, Under the Savage Sky is available on LP/CD August 21 through Bloodshot Records.

Way back in the late-‘70s a Florida-born Jersey resident named Barry White moved up to Boston to study journalism and in due time bonded with noteworthy locals over a mutual interest in stripped-down non-sophisto R&R/R&B action. A band was formed, White becoming Barrence Whitfield to avoid unnecessary confusion with a certain high-profile kingpin of the romance jams; soon he and the Savages issued a pair of no-frills long-players providing a roots infusion to an over-polished era.

All that old history would deserve a greater spotlight if the music recorded post-2010 reunion was somehow unimpressive. Guitarist Peter Greenberg and bassist Phil Lenker returned as new drummer Andy Jody and saxophonist Tom Quartulli rounded out the lineup; with each album they’ve brandished a harder edge, spewing forth wild but well-controlled aural aggression in the undisguised mode of Washington State survivors The Sonics and Detroit’s The Dirtbombs, the latter arriving in the long period of dormancy between Whitfield & the Savages’ fruitful bursts of activity.

As said, those influences aren’t the slightest bit hidden; in fact, both are mentioned in Bloodshot’s press kit for Under the Savage Sky, the citations fitting the scenario so well that interchanging them for others feels wrongheaded. To elaborate, Barrence and crew actually covered The Sonics’ garage punk behemoth “Shot Down” on 2011’s Savage Kings, an LP cut for the long-serving Spanish label Munster (there was apparently a US pressing on Shake It!). And solidifying the connection was a recent Sonics/Savages tour.

Savage Kings endures as a cool entity, but Whitfield & the Savages’ reemergence really kicked into high gear after hooking up with Bloodshot and releasing 2013’s Dig Thy Savage Soul. Across their ‘80s run the group hung in the midst of back-to-basics party rockers The Fleshtones and estimable roots champions The Blasters. Since rekindling the bonfire however, they’ve been sharpening the soul-punk explosiveness and nowhere are the spoils of this objective more evident than on Under the Savage Sky.

Opening on a huge riff, Whitfield exudes relative restraint during the verses of “Willow” only to belt it out on the chorus as the band erupts around him. Greenberg’s tone is sharp throughout, his solo here a smoker, and folks grabbed by This is The Sonics’ appearance earlier in 2015 should investigate this platter minus delay; itching over riotous blare will get a prompt scratching, for Barrence & the Savages currently stand beside Gary Roslie and company as equals.

And this disc contributes to a lengthy streak of deep cover choices. The first example is “I’m a Full Grown Man,” a nugget issued in 1970 for the Jubilee label by one Timmy Willis, a fairly obscure cat some may know as Mr. Soul Satisfaction. Willis’ template is a sturdy hunk of heavy braggadocio, and Whitfield confidently carries the emotive torch as the Savages infuse the situation with wicked punk grit. All the while the source’s magnetic soulfulness lingers, the track’s horn section a wooly beast.

“The Claw” is a fleet plunge into raucous late-‘50s-early-‘60s R&R/R&B updating complete with truly gruff sax reminiscent of the glory days of bar-walking tenor (and baritone) men. It’s followed by “Rock N Roll Baby,” a cover initially flaunting the talents of a singer known as Mercy Baby (aka Jimmy Mullins). Waxed for Ace Records in ’57, it’s aptly assessed as a steaming mess of Big Joe Turner-derived shout and honk and plainly a natural fit for the Savages’ equation.

Barrence barks like a man possessed, Quartulli blows up a gale force windstorm with a minimum of notes (that’s called addition by subtraction), and the cut quickly establishes a blistering groove. From there “Adjunct Street” slows the pace with a solid excursion into old school R&B balladry, Whitfield adroitly managing subtler, less torrid environs as the group, here augmented with piano and organ, handles the rise in dynamic complexity in kind.

The full-bodied riffing of “Angry Hands” brings a moderate increase in tempo. Along the way the vocals segue into sweet reed chewing and string blister, and then everybody combines to unleash a stomping finale. Speedier are the decided rockabilly emissions of “Bad News Perfume,” though amid throttle redolent of ‘70s punk the proposition also reaches back to Chuck Berry.

It commences Under the Savage Sky’s best stretch of songwriting; “Katy Didn’t” is downright inspired, locating freshness in the blunt garage-based pummel and icing the cake with non-trite lyrics. Even better is “Incarceration Casserole,” another superb extension of Sonics-styled mania, Quartulli exhaling lines of persistence, Greenberg wielding prime nastiness, and the Jody-Lenker team producing a hearty rhythmic engine.

Next in the sequence are two more borrowings, “The Wolf Pack” significantly expanding upon an electric blues culled from a ’57 slab for Syd Nathan’s Federal imprint; Kid Thomas’ original was rife with vocal howls and mouth-harp moans, the former retained with panache and the latter substituted by sax as the entirety mingles the juke joint with the R&R revue. It leads into “I’m a Good Man,” a number heaved into being by Elven Parr’s In the Groove Boys circa 1952 for Mr. Sam Phillips.

Written by singer-pianist Eddie Snow, it went unissued for decades (eventually corralled onto at least a couple of Sun Records blues collections), a fate unsurprising as it’s a manic discharge of jump-blues desperation consistently poised on the precipice of falling apart. Barrence and cohorts tighten it up, magnify the amp burn, and lay the hammer down.

It would’ve made a fine closer, but “Full Moon in the Daylight Sky” saves the strongest writing for last, the intensity of Whitfield’s delivery easily navigating an uneasy soul-blues atmosphere as the band dish it out behind him with force and sensitivity. And where the cover material once aided the Savages’ records in cohering into appealing wholes, right now it’s their own stuff that’s most enticing.

Against the odds Barrence Whitfield & the Savages persevere as a machine of efficiency and nimble muscularity; Under the Savage Sky is a trim effort presenting them in top form.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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