The Dirty Streets, Blades of Grass: Done Found Themselves

Memphis heavy rock trio The Dirty Streets proved their mettle with their 2011 sophomore outing, Movements. Between the album itself (review here) and the quality of their performance during subsequent touring (live review here), it wasn’t much of a surprise that the band were picked up by Alive Naturalsound for the release of the follow-up, Blades of Grass. The third full-length finds the three-piece of Justin Toland (guitars/vocals/percussion), Thomas Storz (bass/percussion) and Andrew Denham (drums/percussion) taking on the role collectively of producer alongside engineer Adam Hill, who recorded and mixed the 11 tracks/39 minutes of Blades of Grass in Memphis. Aside from a guest spot from Lucero‘s Rick Steff with piano on opener “Stay Thirsty” and organ on “Try Harder,” there isn’t much change evident in The Dirty Streets‘ overall ethic, though. Their songwriting remains perhaps the strongest element working in their favor, with memorable hooks peppered throughout the collection beginning with the already-noted opener and running through the title track and the later highlight “Keep an Eye Out,” and the performances of Toland, Storz and Denham come through clean and crisp with just enough edge to them to hold onto the summer-bluesy feel the band presented so naturally throughout the course of Movements. That’s not to say there are no signs of creative growth, however. Both in terms of the overall cleanliness of the production — Hill, who also contributes backing vocals and percussion, has worked with the likes of George Thorogood and The Raconteurs at Ardent Studios — and in the clarity of the band’s intent, Blades of Grass is a step forward from where The Dirty Streets were two years ago, and they seem to have that much more of an idea of how they want to sound moving forward. To that end, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if at some point they picked up a full-time keyboardist/organist, since Steff‘s work on “Stay Thirsty” and “Try Harder” fits so well with the band’s organic, grassroots-feeling heavy blues rock style, Toland‘s vocals keeping an edge of Blue Cheer inflection to them but becoming even more his own than they were last time out.

High points come at frequent intervals. “Stay Thirsty” starts Blades of Grass off strong with a commanding stomp and smooth transition to its hook, which despite being reminiscent of those Dos Equis commercials, is one of the album’s best and complemented suitably by the emergence of a secondary chorus in the bridge. The structure and roots of the band are traditional, but there’s nothing overly retro to The Dirty Streets‘ approach, and if anything, Blades of Grass sounds even more modern than did Movements, second cut “Talk” backing “Stay Thirsty” with affirmation of the record’s approach and a touch of start-stop funk to the lyrics, concerned with social issues but not engaging anything specifically as Storz offers an easy-rolling groove on bass that proves among the most satisfying throughout. Toland steps to the fore on guitar with “No Need to Rest” — not quite a shuffle musically, but close — as the band shifts gears from relying so heavily on the chorus to making the most of their instrumental chemistry, which is more than ample enough to carry them through. A mostly-acoustic reworking of the Movements title-track, dubbed “Movements #2” follows in well-percussed fashion, marking a turn more in superficial style than the underlying structure of the material or the warm, natural sensibility at the heart of The Dirty Streets, and both “Try Harder” and “Blades of Grass” prove standouts of the album as a whole, the former for what’s added to it via Steff‘s organ contribution and the latter because it’s the most accomplished blend of the various aspects of the band’s persona, putting light touches of Americana to work in a vaguely funky context (answering the earlier “Talk” and surpassing it in realizing some of the same ideas) with fluid rhythms, strong hooks and a tossed-off, spontaneous feel at a comfortable, mid-paced push that starts the second half of the album on a note even more striking than that which began the first.

There are times where that push feels a bit too comfortable. Both on “No Need to Rest” and “Keep an Eye Out,” The Dirty Streets seem to want to go faster than they’re going, and what  might otherwise be riotous, could-fly-go-off-the-rails moments of danger come across still as good songs, but nestled easily into a groove not dissimilar from much of the rest of the album. Where “Truth” makes sense at a slower pace for its weepy Southern guitar leads, and “Heart of the Sky” ups the blues vibes with guest harmonica credited to Adam Maxwell, “Keep an Eye Out” particularly comes across as begging for raucousness and attitude it doesn’t have. “Heart of the Sky” revives the momentum — again, Storz‘s bass is not to be missed — with a chorus worthy of the opening duo and “Truth”‘s slowdown comes across also in lyrical conversation with “Talk,” a break from the airy verse progression to a section of harmonized vocals doing well to add depth to Blades of Grass before the album proper closes out with the shorter “Twice,” an instrumental psychedelic jam with vague touches of Eastern flourish that’s something of a surprise from The Dirty Streets, who’ve been to this point so very American-sounding, but not out of place when one considers the pervasive nature of psych in the overall sphere of heavy rock. If nothing else, it proves the band can jam, and that’s only going to serve them well going forward. It fades in slowly and out in kind, and though that’s the end of the vinyl, both the CD and download versions come complete with the organ-infused bonus track “I Believe I Found Myself,” a cover of obscure psych-soul outfit Sir Stanley who were featured on the 2002 Chains and Black Exhaust compilation on Memphix Records alongside the likes of Hot Chocolate and Black Merda. Here too, it seems like The Dirty Streets have a prime opportunity to let loose, and they do to a degree, which is encouraging. Ultimately I feel no different about the band after Blades of Grass than I did after Movements. They are a group with an impeccable instrumental chemistry, immediately familiar hooks brought out through exceptional songwriting and a vocalist whose approach is well on its way to becoming a defining element. Their best days may yet lay ahead of them, but that doesn’t mean Blades of Grass shouldn’t be considered a high-value listen for these hazy summer days.

The Dirty Streets, “Stay Thirsty” from Blades of Grass (2013)

The Dirty Streets on Thee Facebooks

Alive Naturalsound Records

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