Upon first listening to The Static Trees’ most recent effort, “Dirty Lungs,” one thing becomes abundantly clear: These are not the same Static Trees that sprouted through the ground with last year’s “Necessary Risks,” a six-song pop blues collection that appeared in this space no more than six months ago. No, but really. These aren’t the same Static Trees — the 2011 release’s liner notes list Nikki Barber and Dylan Whitlow as the two principal members of the group while the current release notes the names Layla West and Abriham Lennin as the minds behind the operation.
No matter. The change in names brought with it a change in direction, and “Dirty Lungs” is the sound of a group growing up in front of our very eyes. Gone are the forced pop sensibilities that served as detriments to “Necessary Risks” and in are a whole new set of tools aimed at achieving guitar-driven blues domination and indie rock, Pitchfork-praised success. Sure, the group might not be quite as solid as they would like to be just yet, but half the fun of “Dirty Lungs” is hearing how close they are to getting there.
“7th Son,” for instance, seems destined for an iPod commercial. The unavoidable guitar walk that Lennin (er, Whitlow) offers up is as catchy and congenial as a single blues riff can get. All the better is the fact that these two slam it down listeners’ throats as many times as possible between verses. It’s the kind of crusty, loose blues that sounds like something blaring from Jack White’s garage.
Part of what makes this a much more celebrated release can be reasoned by West’s (er, Barber’s) step into the spotlight throughout this collection. Never does she sound better than she does on “I’ll Run With You,” a slow blues crawl that suffers from only the emphasis on incorporating drums into the track. Yeah, it’s not the prettiest of takes, but for what the singer may lack in vocal ability she more than makes up for in pure emotion. Her growl is addicting and as her voice cracks during the second verse with the line “And when he’s runnin’/ Oh, I can confide,” the result is so much more affecting than one could ever ask from a thin-voiced Gettysburg, Pa., native. The performance’s grit is unsettling in the most beautiful of ways.
“Ready To Fight” is equally as memorable for the swift turn in direction the track exemplifies. The ragtime piano is at the center of a sound influenced far more by the country-western genre than anything “Necessary Risks” could have ever suggested, but in this case it works wonderfully as West’s voice echos thoughts of a 1920s saloon and long, wide dresses that come in dirty and dark colors. “Movin’ On” stays in that same vein as the quick tempo may remind mainstream listeners of Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn while the texture of Janis Joplin continues to creep into the singer’s approach.
But speaking of that singer’s approach …
The one thing conspicuous by its absence throughout all of “Dirty Lungs” is the lack of a male voice. Almost all of “Necessary Risks” leaned exclusively on Lennin’s vocal abilities. Here, his singing presence is almost nonexistent. The move isn’t particularly jarring — there’s no doubt that West knows how to carry songs on her own — but it’s noteworthy if only for how good Lennin’s rock crooning was on the group’s previous efforts. Yeah, he’s heard in a buried capacity on “Please Come Home,” but considering that’s the only track on which his voice appears, he could have picked a better time to step to the mic.
Why is that? The track meanders more than a deer in a wooded area at 3 in the morning. The whole thing seems like a bit of a throwaway, and with a running time of more than six minutes … well, that’s a whole lot of throwaway. The convoluted, low-rent nature of the song could have been improved with an honest attempt at a vocal part and a concentration on structure, yet all we get is a confusingly generic rock song that struggles to really find its footing.
All is forgiven, though, when you consider The Static Trees as a band and “Dirty Lungs” as a complete set of work. Word has it that these two lovebirds recently left the area for a crack at the big city music machine that is Nashville, Tenn., and why not? This kind of blues/country blend is far more suited for larger exposure and bigger audiences, anyway, and while Gettysburg is a fine area to cultivate a pretty solid music scene, it can’t lay claim to such residents as Taylor Swift or, say, the dudes in The Black Keys.
Besides, if “Necessary Risks” was just a seed in the ground, “Dirty Lungs” has proven that the tree is now standing on its own and developing a few leaves on its branches. It hasn’t grown to its tallest height yet, but something in the majority of these six songs suggests that someday it will be standing high above all its other friends in the forest.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***