Basically, there are three things you can do on bottleneck guitar-tease out sliding melody lines like some would-be Delta jazzman (see Duane Allman), focus on hard, simply effective licks (the Elmore James approach) or slash at it casually for the raucous uncertainty of chords that never stop to articulate notes but smother them in rusty disrepair, instantly evoking trouble and desperation. New York’s Railroad Jerk, of course, dives straight into the sonic garbage can option on its first album, a Northern punk distortion of Southern rural blues that’s disarming in its reverence and bracing in its free-minded chaos alteration of stock structures.
Railroad Jerk, harshly recorded in a two-day blast with Wharton Tiers, pits Minnesota native Marcellus Hall’s voice, electric guitar and harmonica against a lurching rhythm section in which guitarist Chris Mueller complicates, rather than paves over, the intentionally awkward tempos. Scavenging classic country blues records for whatever bits they find useful, the quartet reassembles them with their eyes clenched shut, ensuring plenty of loose ends, calamitous collisions and raw scrapes along the way. “Old Mill Stream” and “Talking RR Jerk Blues” (which casually quotes lines from various ’60s rock’n’roll hits) and “Ninety-Nine Miles” will never be added to the Delta Blues Museum’s permanent collection, but the band’s enthusiasm and structural integrity — reminiscent of the Stones’ early records — makes the songs compelling on their own terms. Rather than make a big condescending deal out of its reference points, Railroad Jerk simply gets on with original music that acknowledges its debts.
Hall and bassist Tony Lee are the only survivors of the debut’s lineup on Raise the Plow; drummer Steven Cerio and various guests, including Uncle Wiggly guitarist William Berger, join them for a more sophisticated, refined exploration of broader terrain and influences. Having partly exorcised its need to kick against the pricks, Railroad Jerk can manage the poise to make a psycheDylanesque run at the blues in the mounting cataclysm of Bukka White’s all-but-unrecognizable “Fixin’ to Die” (the droning “You Can’t Go Back” drops a second Dylan reference), throw Creedence Clearwater against a wall in “Call Me the Son,” goof on a country two-step in “Yes Baby” and summon up visions of Gary Lucas’ cerebral guitar work for Captain Beefheart in the edgy “During the War.” Not an entirely satisfying album — the band’s many ideas too often run a few steps ahead of their execution — but an encouraging leap forward.
Following the Milk the Cow double 7-inch, the placeholding We Understand EP finds Hall and Lee joined by guitarist Alec Stephen (who joined in time to be pictured but not included on Raise the Plow) and drummer Dave Varenka, casually mucking out some of the same artistically appointed stalls with more determination and familiarity. At times, Railroad Jerk sounds like four unrelated musicians randomly in search of a parallel finish line, but the group has its own unique gravity and holds together to keep from going off the tracks in different directions. Although the band isn’t quite ready to be pinned down and mounted, the four songs (“Halfway Across” and “Grandstand Blackout” are the keepers) triangulate a raunchy, melodic rusticism that incorporates elements of Tom Waits, Television, the Mekons and Fall — without drawing a bead on any of them.
With an intriguing declaration — “Well I’m hi-fi and I’m low-brow/I’m history but you know I’ll make it somehow” — Hall kicks the band (amazingly, the same lineup) into gear on One Track Mind, a dandy album that can’t decide whether it wants to be loved, hated, feared or simply ignored. Coming on like a post-punk resurrection of the Band or a scum-rock Beggars Banquet but too singular and erratic to characterize, the record uses Hall’s acidly ironic intelligence and gritty singing as an accessible spindle in “Gun Problem,” “The Ballad of Railroad Jerk,” “Home=Hang,” “Zero Blues” and other tracks. But the music won’t toe the line. Indulging the band’s craggy abstruseness, “Bang the Drum” is a Beck-style “Maggie’s Farm” rap variation; “You Better Go Now” is a maddening syncopated firewall of nearly unrelated scales and solos; “Riverboat” rolls Tom Verlaine in an alley and dumps him and his weird guitar playing in a swamp. At a potent high point, “Forty Minutes” bleakly faces impending doom with only acoustic guitar, a death rattle, a bit of harmonica and a sardonic la-la-la chorus for accompaniment to Hall’s last and will and testament. “Who will the world revolve around now?,” he wonders, wry to the very end.
Bang the Drum contains the titular album track, a hideous alternate version of “Home=Hang,” an outtake and three live acoustic radio-studio scraps, including a properly cavalier cover of the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” and Railroad Jerk‘s “In My Face (Pretty Flower).”