The cover of Bass Drum of Death’s debut LP, GB City, manages to be a pretty solid intro to the Mississippi duo’s music. A haze of smoke shrouds guitarist/songwriter John Barrett and drummer Colin Sneed, Barrett’s shoulder-length hair and Sneed’s worn mop-top are frazzled and frayed in ways that can only be chalked up to humidity, they don leather jackets and white t-shirts. And that’s sort of what you get from GB City–it’s a straightforward, buzzing rocker of an album, infected with a swampy blues that could only come from the banks of the Delta.
Appropriately released on Fat Possum (Barrett worked at the label for several years as well), GB City’s mix of garage blues is like a snapshot of the label’s past and present. A wall of fuzz envelops the entire record, but the band never hides behind it. Except for some lyrics here and there, nothing is ever lost in the record’s haze of overdriven reverb; each strum or drum hit is delivered with a deliberate precision, even the metallic grind of Barrett’s fingers against the strings as his hand flies furiously up and down the neck of his guitar demands attention. Lo-fi this is not–to sacrifice Barrett’s earworm riffs to bedroom aesthetics would be a shame.
Opener “Nerve Jamming” barrels forward like a runaway train with Sneed pounding away on a floor tom and snare until Barrett joins in with ever-present staccato punches on his guitar, even when steady cymbal crashes open the song up during the chorus. “Nerve Jamming” is typical of Bass Drum of Death’s breakneck approach to rock ‘n’ roll, and from then on there’s no holding back. These tracks are made for anything from road trips to thrashing about a cramped basement drenched in yours and everyone else’s sweat. They’re packed with dollar beer-soaked hooks that showcase Barrett’s knack for melody and songwriting, not to leave to mention his skill as a guitarist. But the free-wheeling attacks are balanced with moments of sharp, steady chants–like the chorus of “Heart Attack Kid”–and the occasional mid-song respite that’s over as soon as you catch your breath. When the band fades out after the chorus of “Get Found,” Barrett leads the charge back in with an altered version of the song’s main lick–it’s almost subtle enough to miss, but Barrett lets you know he’s not cutting any corners.
Though these charging jams make up the majority of GB City, Bass Drum of Death don’t let them define their sound. The dissonant plodding of “Leaves” doesn’t so much build to its cathartic chorus, but rather just makes the leap with Barrett suddenly pushing his voice to the limits of its upper-register. The band lumbers steadily through slow-burner “Spare Room” under the guise of Jesus and Mary Chain’s always-reliable “Just Like Honey” drum beat; and though the beginning is neat, early squeaks of feedback signal the track’s chaotic ending as screeching guitar licks, unshakable drums, and even a steady sleigh bell beat pile on top of each other till all that’s left to do is just let everything ring and fade out. But the ending to “Spare Room” provides the record with its best transition, as Sneed welcomes us back with a swinging drum fill that opens album standout “Young Pros,” a simple, rollicking cut that shows Bass Drum of Death and their poppiest and perhaps best.
Lyrically, Barrett keeps it simple, writing what he knows, though manages to put a fresh, often times humorous, take on your basic rock tropes. In the sordid “Velvet Itch,” he comes close to crooning, “I’ve got a velvet itch in my jeans / Can you scratch it?” and later one-ups himself with the line, “I talk to Elvis in my sleep / He said I’m cracked out / But at least, I got nowhere to be.” These are songs of unbridled adolescence that leave the morning-after taste of stale cigarettes and cheap booze in your mouth, the ones that remind you of chasing girls one day (album closer, “Religious Girls”), getting high later that night, and then being physically unable to leave your room the next day.
GB City is a solid debut, proving Bass Drum of Death as capable agents of both the blues and garage traditions. At times the album’s production can feel oppressing, and there are a few clunkers here and there (“I Could Never Be Your Man,” “He’s So Fine”), but beneath the omnipresent fog is a band that knows what it’s doing. GB City succeeds in that even after 35 minutes onslaught of Bass Drum of Death’s gritty roots rock, your ears and those well-crafted hooks keep on ringing.