With timeless rhythms, accessible tunes, and words you can (usually) make out, Crowbar Hotel's debut CD, Other Lives, eschews alt-rock tangents in favor of the deep roots of southern rock and urban blues-rock, with a healthy spicing of Creole-funk. The band begins with a solid core of guitars, drums, and melodic rambling keyboard (from Kurt Wolak), playing tunes reminiscent of the Neville Brothers and Little Feat, and then surprises with jazz changes la Steely Dan. But this is no slavish imitation - just a natural latching on to proven styles. Add in the occasional accordion or horn section, and the music also embraces zydeco, reggae, and even calypso sounds.
A key element of the band's sound is the voice of lead singer John Latini. Recalling the raspy, liquor-soaked growl of Tom Waits, Latini's soulfully controlled vocals animate the stories of the songs. At once smooth and rough, his singing sounds alternately celebratory, remorseful, seductive, and dangerous. The moods match the tunes (most written by Latini and Wolak), which range from the affectionate "Business to Business" ("I'm gonna marry my heart to yours / We'll merge like department stores") to the tough attitude of street-fighting "Louie" ("Stay off the street, easy meat - he'll make your life complete").
The eponymous blues ballad "Crowbar Hotel" is arguably the strongest number here, and it also best fits the formula for a hit, with its memorable chorus and easily deciphered lyrics. (Other songs, harder to follow, are kept somewhat at arm's length.) In a heartbreakingly slow tempo, the song deals with a blues commonplace - a girl cheats on a guy, and he takes revenge. But this song tells the rest of the story, with the cuckold paying the price - "ten years in the Crowbar Hotel" - for his temper: "So I'm all cooped up, such a stupid duck / Gotta push this laundry truck, just plain outa luck / But I rung his clock." The tight ensemble of
musicians (including Sal D'Agnillo on lead guitar and Jim Latini on drums) raises the song's volume to that of an angry lament but then drops back to a polished whisper, leaving us wondering whether to pity the storyteller or fear him.
Throughout Other Lives, the band and the songs explore contrasts in temperament and mood that make us curious about where this talented Ypsilanti-based group is headed in the future. But on this CD, the band never loses that underlying southern comfort that is as down-home as an old rocking chair.
Crowbar Hotel is at Leopold Brothers on Wednesday, April 10, and at Rubber Soul in Ypsilanti on Friday, April 12.
[Originally published in April, 2002.]