INTERGALACTIC BLUES GROOVES MEET THE FULL FORCE OF GUITAR GRAVITY
Put on your cobra snake necktie, it's time for The Northern South Vol. 1, a new EP from desert surf duo Whitehorse.
From the chunky, harmonica-singed ain't-gonna-stand-for-it romance of "My Babe" to a modern rewrite of "You Pretty Thing" - the wedding ring is now coming off, not on - The Northern South Vol. 1 shakes loose the grooves and melodies of 1950s blues standards, shakes off the Blueshammer stigma that comes with the territory, and shakes, as in shimmies, with six new songs that fuse Whitehorse's formidable guitar prowess with an uncanny ability to translate other eras into a distinctively Whitehorse musical vocabulary.
Whitehorse inhabits the kitchens and Cadillacs of Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and others in this homage to one of the most important addresses in music, 2120 S. Michigan Avenue circa 1960, and the astonishing catalogues of Chess and Checker Records. The Northern South looks to a time when drums were finding new space on the stage, after the Great Migration brought so many soon-to-be music legends north to plug in.
The process of making the EP, six songs in five days, has sharpened Whitehorse's own sense of sound and mission, a fusion of pre-Beatles American electric fuzzed up, processed and distorted by pedals, telephones and layer upon layer of banged- about bits.
The story The Northern South is as much about process as result, a fusion of 'how' and 'why' that highlights Whitehorse's essence, one part clockmaker's precision, one part unchecked hurricane. So much of Whitehorse's identity is strung over frets, tightened by pegs, and sent screaming through amps, and this EP is a one-way ticket to Guitarland.
The gear used on The Northern South is as much 'of the time' as possible, either 1950s originals or reproductions thereof. Go into Whitehorse's studio world with this look under the hood, a track-by-track rundown of how The Northern South was made.
On My Babe, Luke plays a Marine Band Hohner blues harp through a Shure Green Bullet microphone (as introduced in 1949). This is how Little Walter would have wanted it. The Falcon mimics the Robert Lockwood Jr. guitar part from Little Walter's original recording, as well as doubling Melissa's bass part. The Jazzmaster sends it into Jetson's territory with the fuzz-soaked solo.
Written by Willie Dixon, originally performed by Little Walter, 1955 - PLAY VIDEO
This arrangement was spawned by Melissa's bass riff. The Falcon and the Jazzmaster add angular Television-esque skronk. The second solo benefits from the Octa-fuzz. Melissa adds dramatic flair on the piano, and the vintage Ludwig drumset comes off like a Stones bed track from Exile on Main Street.
Written by Willie Dixon, originally performed by Howlin' Wolf, circa 1960 - PLAY VIDEO
B I G B O S S M A N
Melissa plays a 1952 Martin 00-17 on Jimmy Red's Big Boss Man. This guitar is new to the Whitehorse family and has a mid-range poke that is perfectly evocative of the era. It's a solid mahogany instrument, smaller than the more popular Dreadnought series (the Martin D-18 is the third acoustic on this record), as opposed to the higher end Brazilian Rosewood and Spruce models favoured by well-heeled country musicians. For maximum back porch effect, Luke plays the Harmony Stella.
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Written by Luther Dickson + Al Reed, originally performed by Jimmy Reed, 1960
Written + originally performed by Chuck Berry, 1963 - PLAY VIDEO
P R E T T Y T H I N G
On Pretty Thing, Whitehorse plays the guitar solo in unison but in different octaves. Melissa is playing the Shyboy Telecaster that Toronto builder Brad Keogan built for them, through a second Gibson GA18. It is the lightest and snappiest Tele they've ever played. That one is a blend of 1950's stye pickups and electronics, with a rosewood fretboard that started to appear on Fenders in 1959 and was ubiquitous through the 1960s. As per Luke, "I fumble my way through a harmonica pass."
Written by Willie Dixon, originally performed by Bo Diddley, 1955 - PLAY VIDEO
COME ON IN MY KITCHEN
The National Resolectric guitar makes an appearance on Robert Johnson's plaintive Come On In My Kitchen. That guitar, when mic'd only, sounds very banjo-esque. Plug it into a '59 Gibson GA18 and it becomes a thick gurgling swamp creature. A bottle-neck slide suits it. The outro diverges into swamp-rock terrain by enlisting the Epiphone banjo that Luke received for his 17th birthday, coupled with Melissa's layered soul-sista vocal harmonies as recorded through the telephone receivers.
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Written + originally performed by Robert Johnson, circa 1937 - PLAY VIDEO
NOTES ON GEAR
On this record, Whitehorse dug into a few other guitars of note, including a Burgundy Mist Fender Jazzmaster, which violates the period just a hair. That model, in those custom colours, would have been released in 1962, although Jazzmasters arrived on the scene in '58/'59. When plugged into an octave divider/fuzz and tuned down to Eb, this guitar gets Luke as close to the sound of Howlin' Wolf's voice as he'll ever get.
Luke's main rig is a reissue of a 1958 Gretsch White Falcon and a plywood 1959 Harmony Stella acoustic, both plugged into a 1959 Gibson GA18 Explorer amplifier.
Also noteworthy is the use of a Fulltone Octafuzz pedal on guitars and a Union Tone fuzz box on Melissa's bass. This brought out the Hendrix in them.
- 1959 Fender P Bass - The bass on this record is a reproduction of a 1959 Fender Precision bass that has a massively thick neck. The first WH bass was a Fender Mustang with a very slender neck, with the thinking being that Melissa's delicate hands might better wrest tones from a smaller instrument. This premise seemed like a diminutive gesture and she has put more hours into the Precision bass in the last 6 months than any other instrument. As it turned out, her hands are most certainly not too delicate for a huge neck.
A B O U T W H I T E H O R S E
DEFECTORS FROM THE KINGDOM OF SINGER-SONGWRITERS, WHITEHORSE HAS BECOME A FULL-BLOWN ROCK N' ROLL OUTFIT, TRULY A BAND, BUT WITH ONLY TWO PEOPLE. THE DUO HAS HONED A MULTI-DIMENSIONAL APPROACH THAT BRINGS A COMPLEX MECHANICS OF BASS, DRUMS, AND KEYS BUILT INTO LOOPS, THEN RIPPED INTO THE SEARING GUITAR SOLOS AND SHIVERY HARMONIES. ON STAGE, THE WHITEHORSE RIG HAS AN AIR OF MAD SCIENTIST TO IT, AN ASSEMBLAGE OF GEAR THAT'S GOT TO BE TOO MUCH FOR ONLY TWO PEOPLE. BUT DON'T FORGET, THE BAND CAN ALSO STEP AWAY FROM IT ALL UP TO A SHARED MIC FOR SONGS OF DELICATE, STUNNING SIMPLICITY, WHERE THERE'S ONLY RAW TALENT TO RELY ON.
IN THEIR SHORT TIME AS A BAND, WHITEHORSE HAS DEVELOPED A SOUND THAT PULLS ELEMENTS OF SURF ROCK CHILL, SPAGHETTI WESTERN FATALISM AND THE BEST OF EARLY 90S ALT ROCK COOL TOGETHER INTO A SOUND THAT IS OFTEN DESCRIBED AS 'ROOTS NOIR.' THE BAND HAS GATHERED A SUBSTANTIAL FOLLOWING IN NORTH AMERICA, WITH COVERAGE THAT HAS INCLUDED NPR, WSJ, ROLLING STONE AND OTHER MAJOR PUBLICATIONS.