While some other New Orleans bands took to the skies and fled to gallivant drunkenly on European tours in the devastated aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — maybe even going so far as to document it on recently-released DVDs; as if to flaunt how quick they were, when shit got rough, to abandon the town after which they may or may not have, say, named their first album — Suplecs, never as commercially viable, never as dominant in the press, never selling out big halls, were right fucking in it. Having their shit stolen. Having the walls of their practice space come down. Having to deal with it not as a band, but as people. Wondering where each other were. Not wanting to, but having to leave.
I remember interviewing Suplecs bassist/vocalist Danny Nick late in 2005 when they put out Powtin’ on the Outside Pawty on the Inside on Nocturnal Records, and the trauma was palpable. If that album was just trying to cope with what happened to the band and its individual members, then their new offering on Small Stone, Mad Oak Redoux, is a look at their experience from some distance and perspective. There’s some anger — “FEMA Man,” “World’s on Fire” — some disappointment — “Try to Build an Engine” — and an almost defiant spirit of strength, which comes out right away in opener “Stand Alone.” On that track and the later “Stepped On,” Suplecs lets their punk roots through, “Stand Alone” offering the title line in the chorus for one of Mad Oak Redoux’s most memorable and urgent excerpts. Hearing it from these guys, I believe it, just like I believe it when either Nick or guitarist Durel Yates — who also handles vocals — confesses “I just thank the good lord above I got good friends in Austin, Texas” on “FEMA Man.”
Mad Oak Redoux isn’t all punk and Katrina-fueled angst. On centerpiece cut, “Hawgjaw,” the trio harkens back to their earlier, fuzzier days of albums like Wrestlin’ with My Lady Friend (2000) and Sad Songs… Better Days (2002) blending in a newfound sonic spaciousness and eventually grounding the track in some appreciably complex licks from Yates, drummer Andrew Preen having no problem matching his meter and force to any of the styles the song adopts. And there are several. Suplecs has never been an especially ambitious or groundbreaking band, but Mad Oak Redoux has moments of genuine intricacy, and “Hawgjaw,” which remains instrumental for its majority and only brings in vocals toward the end, is one of them. Just exactly what is the song’s relation to the Eyehategod side-project of the same name (who spell it as two words: Hawg Jaw), I don’t know.
Moodier elements showing in “Once Again” and the Roadsaw-esque (particularly the vocals) “In Your Shadow” offset Mad Oak Redoux’s more assaulting passages, but I don’t know if anything could have prepared me for the genuine aggro-sludge that comprises “Switchblade.” “Coward,” immediately preceding, is somewhat darker than most of the material earlier on Mad Oak Redoux, but “Switchblade” comes on like the evil twin of “Rock Bottom” from Sad Songs… Better Days. Yates’ riffing and Nick’s rumble — hell, Preen’s crash too — make the song a highlight, but the mood is oppressive and more metallic than I think I’ve ever heard from Suplecs, twisting their bluesy roots and prior easygoing attitude around hard-hitting performances and bombshell aural viscosity.
They don’t end on that note. Instead, closing with a cover of “Cissy Strut” from New Orleans funk originals The Meters’ 1969 self-titled debut, Suplecs march out of Mad Oak Redoux (named for the studio in which it was re-recorded by the ever-vigilant Benny Grotto after first being put to tape in 2008) with the same spirit, albeit differently interpreted, they entered. Sure, it’s a groovy riff, but there’s strength in the playing, and Yates, Nick and Preen are as authentic in their delivery as one could ever hope. I won’t pretend to have any idea what road brought Suplecs to this point in their career, but on their first offering in half a decade, the band sound mature, accomplished and right at home on Small Stone. One hopes Mad Oak Redoux sparks a new era of productivity, as Suplecs has always been one of American riff rock’s most underrated bands.
Tags: Louisiana, New Orleans, Small Stone, Suplecs