Before you’ve even heard Forrest Hackenbrock’s queasy baritone and the even-queasier things that it has to say, the opening two-measure guitar figure of “No Place Else” tells you two things that you need to know about Dirty River, one per measure. First comes the flat 7 slur of measure one, establishing raw and reduced blues as Dirty River’s native language. Next comes a sus 4 trill in measure two, evoking Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and the hundred thousand tuneful alt/rock riffs that followed it.
And that’s what Dirty River does across the 11 delightfully disturbed/disturbing tracks on their eponymous debut CD. You could say that they are pulling alt/rock deeper into blues primitivism, or you could say that they leaven their bleak, frank, haunted blues with the occasional dash of naïve alt/rock melody and modern half-time groove.
Traditional blues, with its jellyrolls and ice cream men, was often euphemistic and metaphorical – and had to be, because its subjects couldn’t be addressed directly at that time. For Dirty River, the reverse is true: Primal blues serves as an all-access license, permission to adopt a persona of extreme, matter-of-fact candor about drugs, sex, despair and, most of all, about numb, joyless hedonism and moral blankness. And Dirty River takes the radical honesty a step further, leveraging the blues tradition of place and Deus Loci and situating this record – overtly, bluntly – right here in the mid-Hudson Valley. It’s not just any dirty river, but one in particular. No Place Else, indeed.
One other thing: They do it without bass, for the most part – you know, like that band, and that other band. Feel what you will about bottom-lite rock, for this band, it is an effective choice for two reasons: First, Hackenbrock’s indifferent sick-kid vocals hang in that low-midrange, and the absence of the bass guitar leaves plenty of room there for a truly uncomfortable intimacy. Second, one of the real joys of this album is its variety of ugly-duckling, fuzzed-out, resonant and tile-echo guitar sounds, and it is great to appreciate them in sans-bass relief.
Word is that they’ve added bass and changed drummers since the CD release, and I am sure that will help move bodies at their upcoming album release party at Liberty of Rhinebeck (also featuring Ryan Kane and Phrends, Shores and Burz). But this excellent, conceptually realized album captures the bald, spare original impetus of the project. We’re used to having punk kids yelling their outrageous freedoms at us. Turns out it is more unnerving, and more cathartic, to have them spoken plainly, reportorially, leveled as if by anti-psychotic meds. Funny then, that Dirty River’s bluntest moment comes under the evasive acronym of the title “F.A.D.” You’ll just have to go to Bandcamp to know what I mean.
Dirty River album release party, Friday, July 12, 9 p.m., Liberty of Rhinebeck, 6417 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; https://dirty-river.bandcamp.com.