By Eleni P. Austin
When Rock N’ Roll was invented in the middle of the 20th century, the genre incorporated Jazz, Boogie-Woogie, Country, Rhythm & Blues and Gospel. Soul-Shouters and Blues-Belters like Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker and Etta James ruled the airwaves. Later, they were supplanted by Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, plus the Bonnies: Bramlett and Raitt.
These days that same spirit is embodied in the band 68-75. Guitarist Andrew Cylar and singer Suzanne Sledge first came together at the beginning of the new millennium in Sanctified. When that combo spontaneously combusted, the duo laid low for the rest of the decade, re-emerging in late 2011 as 68-75.
Their moniker is not just a sly reference to intersecting southern state highways, but also alludes to the incendiary era of Rock N Roll when the sounds of Swinging London coalesced with the down-home grit of Rhythm & Blues and Southern Rock. Color lines blurred, Mad Dogs, Englishmen and Dominos hunkered down in the deep South. The result was a cross-cultural exchange that included classics like “The Letter” from Joe Cocker, “Layla” from Eric Clapton, (under the guise of Derek & The Dominos) and “Only You Know And I Know” from Delaney & Bonnie.
Taking inspiration from that epochal era, as well as bands like the Faces, Humble Pie and The Black Crowes, Sledge and Cylar recorded two well-received EPs. For their first long-player the pair recruited drummer Matt Kotheimer and bassist Steve McPeeks. Recorded in three studios in an astonishing four days, Stay The Ride arrived in early 2014.
The four-piece made their bones on the road, relentlessly touring the U.S. Headlining, and opening for legends like Ian McLagan and Leon Russell as well as contemporaries like Joe Bonnamassa and the Temperance Movement. After amicably parting ways with Kotheimer and McPeeks, 68-75’s new line-up includes Hal “Wolf” Mahan anchoring the low-end on bass and John Powney stepping behind the drum kit. Timed to coincide with their U.K. tour, the band has just released their sophomore effort, Consequences.
The album kicks into gear with “Magnetic Head.” Barbed-wire guitar riffs collide with angular bass lines and a walloping back-beat. Sledge’s Soul-power vocals glide over the stop-start melody. Her mien pivots between defiance and self-recrimination as she justifies some questionable tour behavior; “You are lonely out on the open road.” Cylar’s solos underscore her equivocation, spitfire licks suddenly shape-shifting to smokier, burnished notes.
Traditionally, the Blues, and by extension, Soulful Blues-Rock, feature lyrics that limn misfortune, heartache and hard times. 68-75 kinda-sorta follows that paradigm. Three tracks tackle themes of suspicion, caution and spirituality. Spiky power chords and sludgy, trampled underfoot rhythm belie the skepticism Sledge displays on “Eye On You.” She doesn’t mince words; “over and over, you’re wearin’ thin and I wanna know what’s up your sleeve.”
A sustained note of guitar feedback opens and closes the title track. As the rhythm section locks into a chugging groove, the lyrics warn of the domino effect of carnal attraction. Hinting there are always “consequences.” Cylar unspools a series of protean riffs that mirror Sledge’s concupiscent vocals. He’s like the devil on her shoulder. Cyclonic licks give way to rippling riffs and stuttery bent notes that curve and twist like “Matrix” characters dodging bullets.
The slow-cooked Blues of “24 Lady Karen” simmers, but never boils over. Serpentine electric guitar slithers over the melody like a reticulated python. Acoustic guitars layer underneath a push-pull rhythm and subtle organ wash. Slightly cryptic lyrics espouse a “let-go, let-God” attitude when it comes to understanding and accepting death. “When I reach my resting place hope it comes together, no more questions unanswered, blown away forever.”
Without sounding hyperbolic, every song on Consequences is uniformly excellent, but the standout tracks up the ante by adding Marty Kearns on keys, Jeff Baker on harp and Colin Agnew on congas. “Something On My Mind” is equal parts tensile and expansive, echoing obvious touchstones like Humble Pie, Allman Brothers and Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.
Sinewy guitar chords slip n’ slide through greasy organ runs and insistent conga beat. It’s pedal-to-the-metal until it’s suddenly not. Powering down on the bridge allows each musician a moment to shine. The tune is a rich tapestry of organ, guitar, drums and conga all stitched together by Sledge’s empathetic and elastic vocals.
“Prodigal Son” locks into a swampy groove accented by roiling harp notes, icy keys and hopscotching bass lines. Cylar’s chunky guitar riffs wrap around Sledge’s lyrics of self-recrimination. On the instrumental break the song simply exhales, opening like a fine wine. Truly a tour de force!
While the lyrics of “Our Drunk History” obliquely deal with intangible themes, swinging between light and dark extremes, the melody and instrumentation are less ethereal. Sticky, fuzzed-out guitar licks connect with a tumbling back-beat and rainbow-tinged organ colors. Cylar’s solo ricochets through the ramshackle arrangement like a shooting star, before the whole thing collapses, ending on a sodden, sustained organ note.
Finally, “My Way Out” is a Psychedelic Blues-Rock workout that blasts out of the speakers like a force majeure. Over a rock-steady beat, Cylar’s ax-work is bold as love, blending tightrope-walkin’ leads with flange-y underpinnings. Sledge matches him note for note, howling one second and caressing her words the next.
Other tracks include the menacing “Stooges,” which has nothing to do with Iggy (or Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp), instead offering a veiled account of a toxic relationship. The album closes with the ultimate Psychedelic groover, “Get It Right.”
The opening guitar licks and tick-tock rhythm might lull the listener into picturing themselves on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies, but the arrangement and instrumentation takes a hard right as the drums kick in, locking in a bludgeoning beat. Sledge prowls the perimeter of the melody hoping for a little emotional rescue, but quickly discovering it’s just beyond her grasp. It offers a fiery conclusion to a wild ride.
Consequences is an assured and adroit collection of songs. Happily, 68-75 has managed to sidestep the dreaded sophomore slump. Clearly this band is here to stay.