As smooth and unpretentious as the easy-drinking Lone Star Beer brewed in their home state of Texas, heavy Southern rock trio Dixie Witch have undergone some considerable changes over the course of their 12-year run. It’s astonishing to think it’s been five years since their stellar third album, Smoke and Mirrors, was released by Small Stone, and even more so to imagine the three-piece without guitarist Clayton Mills, who left in 2009. On Dixie Witch’s fourth album, Let it Roll (also Small Stone), dreadlocked guitarist Joshua “JT” Todd Smith makes his debut alongside founding drummer/vocalist Trinidad Leal and bassist/vocalist Curt “CC” Christensen, and as much as Mills’ tone, classic rock soloing and ability to lock in a groove with Leal and Christensen was a huge part of what made Dixie Witch the rock and roll powerhouse they were, the band hasn’t missed a beat. Smith rips through leads and lacks nothing in tonal heft, and Dixie Witch’s latest brims with the energy that has always been so prevalent in their sound.
More than energetic, though, the 10 tracks on Let it Roll are memorable, from the opening title cut – on which Smith quickly shows his hand as regards sped-up blues soloing – to the punkish late-album highlight “Automatic Lady” and on through closer “December.” Dixie Witch have always had their love of classic rock on their sleeve, and that’s definitely in play on Let it Roll as well, but the album is more a showcase of songwriting ability than ‘70s fetishism. Recorded at Mad Oak in Allston, Massachusetts, by Small Stone’s go-to engineer Benny Grotto, the balance of natural, live sound and clarity that has shown up on much of the label’s latter-day output (see also: 2011 releases from Freedom Hawk, Backwoods Payback, Lo-Pan, Roadsaw and Suplecs) is in full and righteous effect across Let it Roll. The dude knows how to make rock records sound like rock records, and Dixie Witch, for their part, certainly have some expertise in the matter as well. Leal’s drums don’t have the same kind of brightness in the hi-hat or prevalence in the mix as they did on Smoke and Mirrors (produced by Joel Hamilton), but everything is in order, and as Leal and Christensen set the tone for the several lead-vocal tradeoffs the album has on offer in the transition between “Let it Roll” and “Boogie Man,” the sense of balance is palpable.
That Leal and Christensen share lead vocal duties adds diversity to Dixie Witch’s approach, which is still relatively straightforward no matter who’s fronting at any given moment. The band’s propensity for strong choruses shines through, and “Boogie Man” shows right away that just because they’re using a consistent songwriting tactic doesn’t mean different personalities can’t be carried across. “The High Deal,” for example, follows “Boogie Man.” Leal takes over the vocals once more, and the song is less outwardly vibrant, a little slower, a little more ringing Southern note progression from Smith in the verse, and in that kind of heavy rock song of the road that Dixie Witch have always excelled at crafting without ever sounding foolish or overtly inauthentic. It’s a solid lead-in for the catchy “Red Song,” which revives the more energetic take and finds Leal putting his toms and double-kick bass drum (of which I’m normally not a fan) to excellent use setting up another engaging solo from Smith. Of all the tracks on Let it Roll, “Red Song” is among the easiest to imagine in a live setting, Christensen’s rumble adding emphasis to Leal’s persistent pedal work, and the band’s formidable charisma materializing even from just the audio.
Smith begins “Saving Grace,” which caps the first half of Let it Roll with Christensen again taking the fore. His approach is a good contrast for Leal’s, as he has more of a shout to what he does, where the drummer is more definitively rooted in the Southern rock tradition. “Saving Grace” feels in a hurry to get to the chorus, but satisfies anyway once it gets there, and as the halfway point of the album comes and goes, it’s apparent just how quickly Dixie Witch are moving through the vinyl-friendly 36 minutes of the album. Not surprising, since even going as far back as their 2001 Into the Sun debut or 2003’s One Bird, Two Stones, they’ve never been much for wasting time, but 10 years after the release of that first album, their efficiency seems even more potent, their delivery more confident and their awareness of who they are as musicians all the more encompassing – doubly impressive considering this is Smith’s first appearance on record. In that regard, Dixie Witch was probably right to tour first with him in the band and hone their chemistry in a live setting before entering the studio. It may have made the spread of time between Smoke and Mirrors and Let it Roll longer, but the songs are undoubtedly stronger and tighter for it.
Partial credit for that (or at least the presentation of it on the album) should probably go to Grotto as well, whose expertise in recording this kind of music is second to nobody’s. As the second half of Let it Roll gets underway with a guest appearance from Roadsaw’s Craig Riggs (also the owner of Mad Oak Studios) on the mid-paced “Sevens,” the focus is again put on the live sound, as Leal directly addresses the audience and announces, “This is a traveling song/I’m where I belong/With my brothers and the dream,” in the chorus, once again showing the band’s knack for “road songs.” They’ve done their share of touring, it’s true, but after a point, the numbers become secondary to the mood and groove of the tracks themselves, which as ever are conveyed with that same classic sensibility of hard road living that’s driven countless tracks both in Dixie Witch’s discography and in the annals of the rock that’s inspired them. “Anthem” proves to be a statement of intent in which Leal makes reference to the shifts the band has undergone and mentions lost heroes and friends in a manner not dissimilar from that of “Set the Speed” from Smoke and Mirrors, but the song’s lack of frills and, frankly, lack of bullshit, place it among the stronger tracks on Let it Roll. All the more appropriate, then, it should be followed with “Automatic Lady,” which is the shortest of the cuts at 2:11 and arguably the most infectious, Christensen’s vocals more than at home amid the punkish rush.
Even at just over two minutes, Dixie Witch finds room to work in a solo from Smith, managing to get it in under the line in the track’s second half, so the effect is basically that “Automatic Lady” follows the same course as the rest of the material on Let it Roll, and is just more condensed. It’s a shot of energy from which Side B benefits, and though “Second Chance” returns to the effective middle pacing of “Red Song,” the momentum Dixie Witch have constructed by this point in Let it Roll isn’t so easily derailed. The hook of “Second Chance” doesn’t quite stand up to some of the other material, but sandwiched between “Automatic Lady” and closer “December,” it’s surrounded by some of the record’s best songs, and rightfully so. “December” reestablishes the vibrancy of Let it Roll’s opening salvo with a faster tempo and fitting closeout from Leal on vocals. Like many of the songs, it leaves an impression that lasts longer than its runtime, and in that way, as much as “Let it Roll” opened the album with a suitable establishing of the upbeat and lively Dixie Witch ethic, so too does “December” affirm it one last time. I’ll admit to being cautious in my approaching Let it Roll, having put such stock in Clayton Mills’ guitar as an essential element of the band, but with the addition of Smith, Dixie Witch have found a way to avoid the trap of falling backwards that lineup shuffles sometimes brings about, instead refining the approach of their last album and progressing even further in terms of craft. Roll on, gentlemen.
Tags: Austin, Dixie Witch, Small Stone, Texas