You know the old saying: three chords, infinite variations.
That’s the blues. Cranked up to 11, that’s the Ragadors’ debut LP “blackinkyswells” -- rolling stones tumbling down a mountain like boulders, anguished midnight wails bouncing off an empty bed, heartless women with blood on their hands, bad memories and restless wandering.
If you’re not really, really good at this -- if you don’t carry around these hard-luck, hard-fought scars from dive to dive, freight car to freight car -- you run the risk of sounding derivative, late to a party Jack White threw ten years ago.
When you’re really, really good at this, like the Ragadors, you make a record full of songs that sound like lost 45s Jack White dragged out of John Lee Hooker’s basement and electrocuted. “I’m Your Man.” “Lonesome.” “Cold Blooded Woman.” “I Got a Woman.” You know these songs already, don’t you? You know what they feel like, where they came from, where they’ll be the next time your girl walks out and the bars won’t have you. That’s the blues. Room-rattling bottom, huge guitar solos swooping across the 12-bar rhythm, and singer Ben Hall’s commanding boom -- that’s the Ragadors’ rock variation.
Cough and you’ll miss someone grumbling, “I can’t play it any faster!” at the beginning of “Need Your Love Tonight,” Hall’s post-coital call for more coitus, right now. If the first nine tracks didn’t make it abundantly clear, the Ragadors don’t hold anything back, and Hall doesn’t do subtle. When Hall knows what he wants, he demands it, kicking out an ex on “Ain’t Welcome Here No More” after showing off the new girl in his bed, and telling another woman that she’ll be his next conquest on “I’m Your Man.” When he knows what he’s missing, Hall is just as forthright, moaning after a love he drove away on “Cold Night” while virtuoso drummer Joshua Harper bats him around for good measure. And when he meets his match in “Bottom Line Babe’s” irresistible femme fatale, Hall’s common sense and libido tear at each other until he’s left wailing after music that’s charging away without him.
On “blackinkyswell’s” best moments -- “Bottom Line Babe” most definitely included -- that rush of sound and Hall’s charisma pull the Ragadors out of their bluesy comfort zone. “Death Train” turns up the tempo on a slow-burning sing-a-long chorus until it flirts with dance-punk and then morphs into a gospel-revival freakout. Is there such a thing as lead drum? I think Harper’s cascades on anxious confessional “Nervous Feeling” qualify, a jumble of jitters disrupting and finally overwhelming the lonely midnight stroll guitar line, kicking Hall down the street like a tin can.
If the Ragadors keep assaulting their genre’s boundaries with such impassioned aggression, it’s only a matter of time before they break on through to the other side for good. God knows what kind of awesomeness they’ll find over there. And when they come back, the blues will be waiting for them, and for the next band. Ain’t going nowhere.