Mr. Airplane Man

  • Mr. Airplane Man
  • Red Lite (Sympathy for the Record Industry) 2001 
  • Moanin' (Sympathy for the Record Industry) 2002 
  • C'Mon DJ (Sympathy for the Record Industry) 2004 
  • Shakin' Around EP (Sympathy for the Record Industry) 2004 

With discordant slabs of authentic Americana and misery, the female guitar/drum duo Mr. Airplane Man borrows its name, jagged tones and quaking backbeats from Howlin’ Wolf, the archetype of messy, blues-soaked power. Veterans of bars, self-produced singles and disappointment, the Bostonians compare favorably to other roots duos who have discovered themselves in the Mississippi Delta — more dissonant than the Flat Duo Jets, more soulful than the Black Keys, bluesier than the White Stripes and more rocking than the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies.

At times prodded by Morphine’s late Mark Sandman, the girls have had both heady supporters and difficult financial times. Each new record, however, brings greater verve and more artistic self-assurance, as they have moved from foot-stomping garage music to incorporate gospel, plaintive field yodeling, Piedmont blues, urban Memphis sophistication and, of course, the volcanic cultural rumblings of once-prosperous cotton fields.

Buoyed by Sandman’s encouragement, produced by Memphis folky garagster Monsieur Jeffrey Evens, mixed by bassist Shawn Cripps and made more certain by Nick Diablo’s additional guitar, Red Lite is still the work of two serious musicians: songwriter/singer/guitarist Margaret Garrett and pounding drummer Tara McManus. The songs are noisy flashes of fire, with a guitar sound seeping from some primordial ooze. A kicking cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” struts across the stage, weary and crippled. The music is feedbacky, raw, fuzzy and, at times, shimmering. On “All Alone,” the naked emotion and pared-down minimalism bespeak lost worlds; on Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Black Cat Bone,” the women’s own personalities break through, capturing the dusky, violent world of faithless men with keening notes of despair. A solid debut.

Moanin’ was produced in Detroit by Jim Diamond; thanks to his expert guidance and patience as well as the mix by Greg Cartwright of Oblivians fame, the album is looser, more sympathetic, warming up what was previously stark chilliness. And the performances are better-crafted as well, as on a haunting reworking of the old “Jesus on the Mainline” and a nice rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime.” There’s actually tuneful popiness to be heard, and much more expressive singing.

The Shakin’ Around EP is outstanding, even if it is essentially a warm-up to the third album. (In fact, one song appears on both.) This is an essential purchase if for no other reason than the title song, which sounds like the Stones overdubbed by the Stooges. Taking full advantage of the studio, the band fields twin riffing guitars and a thundering snare now and then; the singing is early Chrissie Hynde, deep, soulful, full of regret. Ambitious slide work sparks “Up in the Room.” Chuck Berry’s timeless “Round and Round,” further referencing the early Stones, gets fat, bending blues licks. But the touchstone for the original “Grown Up” is the tough heartache of ’60s girl groups.

C’mon DJ opens with the punkish title song; what was once stoical and spartan has become ferocious, high-volume romping. Recorded and mixed by Cartwright and Doug Easley, the album features fewer covers (four, including “Asked for Water”) and less outside instrumentation. This singular album mixes garage nervousness and heartfelt renditions of the blues; on almost every song the combination is fresh and imaginative. If describing the guitar as part retro-punk and part rockabilly rave sounds like Jon Spencer’s excursions into the same territory that would be wrong: there is no irony, no taunting, no fraudulent re-assemblage here. Mr. Airplane Man’s music screams at the empty and damned land, and waits for an echo.

[Michael Baker]