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.