With the resurgence (and commercial success) of “retro-rock,” it seems that every band has looked rearward for some nostalgic inspiration. Vintage threads? Check. Handlebar mustaches? Check. But the one ’70s-era novelty they have all neglected is the singing drummer. Think of all the amazing bands fronted by the man behind the skins. The Band! The Eagles! Genesis? We can all remember how each of those bands’ drummers would draw his boom mike close for a powerful vocal rendition while their hands, almost magically, continued to pound out a rhythm. Recently we’ve had successful quartets, collectives, and duos — oh, have we had duos. But where is the trio? Enter Dixie Witch.
Long since established as the as a preeminent touring triumvirate, Dixie Witch’s previous efforts have all suffered the same ailment: a preponderance of midrange frequencies that caused many to suggest they turn down the sloppy knob. As anyone who has witnessed Dixie Witch’s spectacular show can attest, this imbalanced equalization belied one exceedingly tight group. For the first time, under the watchful eye of Joel Hamilton, the band’s aural assault has been allowed to shine in all its glory. Lead track “Set the Speed” is easily the album’s strongest. Boasting one of Clayton Mills’s most impressive riffs to date, as well as a steady diet of Trinidad Leal’s double kick, it’s the perfect introduction to Dixie Witch’s instrument-centric ethos. And that’s certainly not a bad thing when the band’s musical prowess is so awe-inspiring. It does, however, make lyrics less of a priority.
Dixie Witch is clearly treading the same lyrical territory on Smoke & Mirrors as it did on previous releases, with Leal conjuring one recurring image — life on the road. This migratory lifestyle has obviously impacted his writing. On “Set the Speed,” he wonders aloud, “Another day and I’m on the run/ set the speed to the morning sun/ got no money, I got nowhere to go/ sometimes I feel like I got nothing to show.” During the slow and deliberate “Ballinger Cross,” he sings, “Drive on further/ where the sky meets the earth/ wondering how long it can be.” Although a single source of inspiration can become repetitive, it lends a certain cohesiveness to Dixie Witch’s body of work. Like one long “Turn the Page,” the album infuses the listener with a fleeting sense of departure and longing. Needless to say, Smoke & Mirrors is ideal for any road trip.
More than ever, Leal relinquishes the microphone to bassist Curt Christensen, thus making his drumming all the more impressive. These singing drummers are mere mortals, after all; their drumming has to become more simple come crooning time. Christensen’s Lemmy-esque vocals lend a much needed bark to the more up-tempo songs on the album (“Thursday” and “Getaway”), and the lyrical interplay between the two on “Out in the Cold” is a much welcomed addition.
Quite simply, ZZ Top better call the U.S. Trademark Office. With Smoke & Mirrors, Dixie Witch could make one hell of a claim to the patent on the “Little ol’ Band from Texas” label.