Ah, the subdudes – kings of the subtle sort of groove that sneaks up and gets its hooks into you before you know it. Even in their most musically stripped-down form, the ‘dudes reek of funk and soul … take the jam right down to just an accordion and some hand percussion and they’ll still do things to your rhythm gland like nobody else. Last year’s live release, Live At The Rams Head, gave us an excellent collection of tunes from the subdudes’ catalog while providing the band with a waypoint to stop and say, “Where do we want to go from here?”
Where they went is Flower Petals, their first studio album since 2004’s Miracle Mule, with the band keeping it as rootsy and acoustic as possible. (Anything that’s plugged in on the album is only there to add to the emotion of the moment; besides, who’s going to complain about Al Kooper guesting on organ? Not me.)
Though Flower Petals is a concept album, you can enjoy the songs on their own without deciphering the tale (and figuring out the mystery – who did kill the young returning soldier if it wasn’t the boxcar hobo?). The story is all well and good, but forget about it for the first few listens and simply sop up the tunes.
The beautiful harmonies of “Flower Petals Intro” lead us quickly into “The Flower And The Fire,” a good example of what the subdudes are all about: funky acoustic guitar and bass dance with each other on a bed of John Magnie’s fat accordion honk, building the song’s intensity until it takes off into a full-blown gospel rave-up with the bass driving everything right up into the rafters overhead. You haven’t much gotten your breath when “Standing Water” surrounds you, Magnie’s accordion weaving with Tommy Malone’s sweet and airy guitar while the ‘dudes do their patented ‘dudes vocal thing.
Along with the aforementioned Al Kooper, Flower Petals features guest appearances by Angelo Morris on keys and guitarist Vern Monnett who keeps the steel in hand for two cuts back to back, laying down some chilling pedal steel on “Barley In The Silo” and some slick dobro on “The Blacksmith Song.”
While Magnie’s accordion and Malone’s voice and acoustic guitar work definitely help define the subdudes’ sound, Flower Petals showcases the multi-instrumental talents of the other band members, as well. When not providing cool percussion on everything except your basic drum kit, Steve Amedee adds some just-right mandolin to songs such as “False Front”, “Wedding Rites” and “Sho’ Looks Guilty”. Tim Cook and Jimmy Messa cover each other on bass during the times when Cook is helping out on percussion or Messa is playing guitar … or square dance calling (“Redemption Song”).
With its bluesy acoustic guitar and piano opening, “My Soul” sounds like something off the Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet – the subdudes’ choir taking it home only adds to the effect. The instrumental “Nightshade” wraps things up with ghostly guitar wails and wisps of percussion swirling in the night sky as the bass lurches across the frozen empty field below. (Somebody throw another log on the fire, would you please?)
As mentioned, the turn-of-the-century tale told in the songs is entertaining, but the music stands on its own – shuffle up the order and this would still be a good album. Flower Petals finds the subdudes as cool in their own skins as they’ve ever been.