Over the last decade, hard rock has flushed itself straight down the shitter. Turn on the radio, and your choices are either K-Rock hell or some Foreigner/Foghat/Boston triple-shot that’s been knocking around since ’77. Indie brats offer nothing better; in fact, they’re worse. Check out any webzine with an American Apparel banner: Either it’s obsessing over Stoner-Rock Clone #64,832 or the likes of Howlin’ Rain and MV & EE, retro hacks who drop more bell-bottomed clichés than That ’70s Show and Chris Robinson combined.
Exceptions do exist. The Black Keys and the Drive-By Truckers are both solid, if a bit samey-same. Neil Michael Hagerty is an icon, of course, even if his latest project, the Howling Hex, is a bucket of cold noodles. Grunge daddy Mark Lanegan is another keeper: At his best, the former Screaming Trees frontman is the modern-day equivalent of early Humble Pie or vintage Rod Stewart—a folkie in love with pummeling riffage as much as he is confessional lyrics and acoustic blues.
My current fave, though, is TK Webb, who just released Ancestor, his first disc for Kemado Records (also home to Dungen and the Sword). All the stuff I said about Lanegan applies here as well: The Kansas City–bred guitarist/singer/songwriter cranks out loud jams while reaching across entire universes and somehow finding the common link between country blues, classic rock, and early-’90s grunge. Amazingly enough, Ancestor is the dude’s first attempt at straight-up hard rock. Before putting together the Visions, his current backing band, Webb did the loner-bluesman shtick, and did it better than anybody outside the Fat Possum stable. Track down 2006’s Phantom Parade—in my humble opinion, it’s the only album in the last 20 years to really flesh out the ragged sway sweeping across side two of Exile on Main St.
Webb ditched the rustic stuff because, like a lot of us, he grew tired of all the trust-fund assholes in Brooklyn (and L.A. and San Francisco) who dress up like the Manson Family. “I found myself lumped in with that whole freak-folk thing,” he says. “It’s an avenue for a lot of people who don’t have any talent. That’s pompous, but true. Anything folkie, especially country blues, is such a formative thing for me that it’s kind of sacred. People jumping on it is a bummer.”
I knew Ancestor was a product of self-distancing even before Webb gave me the quote of the month. Right from the opening groove, the album shuns all obvious affiliations. It’s damn near archetypal in that the music feels neither vintage nor modern, underground nor mainstream. As with Royal Trux during its Thank You/Sweet Sixteen phase, or even Fleetwood Mac near the end of Peter Green’s reign, the Visions operate on two planes by design. On the surface, Ancestor is so artless, so unadorned, so inward-looking that the first few spins make you think they’re just another pack of six-string Neanderthals on barbiturates, slowly humping the obsidian ripple of a tar pit. Make it past that, however, and you realize that their sly rhythmic power, which never leaves second gear, derives not from volume and force, but subtle arrangements woven from gnarled blues-rock grooves and shards of rusted fuzz. As Webb points out: “A lot of the best art is based on that—something totally fucked meets something totally beautiful.”
That aesthetic is the cat’s meow, if you ask me, a guy who believes that Peter Green and the Trux, not Zeppelin and the White Stripes, represent hard rock’s apex. Of course, I’m in the minority. Most fans of this kind of music don’t want to work to get it; they just want bong-a-rific freedom rock with big, dumb riffs and sweaty mugging. That’s the age-old stereotype, and there’s always a new generation of meatheads willing to perpetuate it. But hey, I guess Webb understands all this, or else he wouldn’t croak a line like: “I need you to tell me no/Until I think it’s yes.” Right?
TK Webb plays Bowery Ballroom September 17