Thieves of the soul

Five seconds into the fifth song on Steal Your Soul and Dare Your Spirit to Move, Johnny Walker calls off the band: “All right. Let’s hold it. Hold it, hold it. Let’s do this proper now.” And three seconds later, the Soledad Brothers start up again with Walker’s thickly overdriven guitar, Ben Swank’s swaggering midtempo strut on the drums and Oliver Henry’s bassy dirge in the Wurlitzer.

The moment perfectly characterizes the proper state of the Soledad Brothers now — a beautifully flawed perfectionism that relies on ragged edges, a swaggering mess of spirited blues that constantly toes the line between the brilliance of a drunken epiphany and the pure chaos of a drunken brawl. As things on Steal Your Soul …, their latest release, get closest to the edge of collapse, the Soledads are in full form, ranting through the scuzz and grit of postmodern, front-porch spirituals and the overdriven egoism of Delta-infused soul.

When the founding duo of Swank and Walker saw the demise of their former project, Henry and June, the Soledad Brothers were born. Named for a group of African-Americans imprisoned in the maximum security Soledad Prison and dedicated to the inspired fusion of roots-blues and reckless punk abandon, the Ohio-based duo was adopted as the out-of-town bastard brother to Detroit’s garage underground. Just before recording their second full-length on Washington state’s Estrus Records (The Mooney Suzuki, Man or Astro-man?), they accepted the Greenhorn’s Oliver Henry into the fold to play electric piano and saxophone, and the current lineup of the Soledad Brothers was established.

“We don’t really want to be called garage or whatever,” says drummer Ben Swank. “Its not like there’s anything wrong with that. We want to do what we feel is authentic, blues or whatever. There is a degree of dirt to it and people would always say we’re garage, but that was never our intention. Just because we are not the most technically proficient musicians — but we wanted to put more songwriting in this record and see how many different things you could do with blues. I think when people think of blues, right off the bat it is Robert Johnson blues or B.B. King blues. There is much more than that.”

Steal Your Soul …encompasses a lot more than the ideological clichés of blues or the current vogue of garage music. Recorded partially in Cincinnati by Rueben Glazer (where Walker is doing time in his last semester of med school) and partially in Detroit (which Swank currently calls home) by Jim Diamond and Jack White, the record’s production is every bit as diverse and well-informed as the songs themselves. Walker, Swank and Henry rollick though the oversexed jelly-roll and unrestrained energy of R.L. Burnside’s “Michigan Line” with just as much natural ease as the instrumental folk-blues of “This Guitar Says I’m Sorry” and the rowdy New Orleans street parade of “Good Friday the 13th.”

“We did the record in weird periods. We did two here (with Jack White) — we did five with Jim Diamond and six in Cincinnati (with Rueben Glazer),” Swank says. “We did the recording in Cincinnati the week that people were rioting down there, so we were sort of holed up. We were staying at this guy’s house and staying in Kentucky so we could go out at night. Johnny was working in the hospital when they brought in the kid who the cops shot. He was working in the emergency room and people were coming in who had been shot with rubber bullets.”

Although race riots ensued outside in the mean streets of Cincinnati, the record made behind closed doors is thankfully free from the racial irony that too often goes hand-in-hand with the social taboo of 20-year-old white kids playing historically black music. Walker’s south-Ohio jive-talk about gambling, hard drinking and social injustice is steeped in evangelical authority and raw sincerity, making Steal Your Soul and Dare Your Spirit to Move undeniably genuine from the word go. By the record’s end, the collective howl of Walker, Swank and Henry does everything the title says it can. Catch the Soledad Brothers CD-release party Friday at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward, Detroit. Doors are at 9 p.m., call 313-833-9700.

Nate Cavalieri is Metro Times’ listings editor. E-mail him at [email protected]