There’s a lot to be said about strong acoustic blues with a solid female lead. Most every North American city has these duos at the end of each block. Affecting vocal abilities from a woman. Aggressively subdued guitar picking from a man (who, by the way, always gets a song or two to himself, for reasons the musical gods have never quite explained). Throw in some originals that prove impressive when sandwiched between watered-down Etta James and Aretha Franklin covers (substitute for Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and Joni Mitchell, depending on where you are). Add constant reminders that a $5 CD is for sale “up front,” and boom: You have yourself a bona fide shot at making music a low-paying career.
Winchester, Va.’s Dangerous Mood take that formula and end up beyond the parameters of mere success on “Crossroads Dance,” their debut EP that runs the gamut of pop-blues criteria all the while making the case for a strong and fruitful future. Better than average and occasionally great, Jordan McWhorter’s impressively powerful vocals fit naturally with Trevor Davis’ funk-ish take on some tried and true blues riffs. And despite the predictable nature of a lot of what the release offers, these two continuously find ways to make their blend both interesting and inescapable.
The best moments are the bookends. “Ghost” is strikingly passionate, a roller-coaster of emotions that is only accentuated by the fluctuation in McWhorter’s voice. Better yet are the harmonies that prop up the song’s chorus, an eerie and affecting slew of “oooohhhhs” that prove the best touches are the tiniest. “Dangerous Mood,” meanwhile, closes up shop with a traditional blues groove that Davis makes his own with percussive taps and light finger snaps. Both vocalists reach deep for authentic-enough intonations, suggesting a home far more Southern and far more down-and-out than Winchester. By the time the thing bubbles over near its end, you’re begging for more of whatever in the name of Jimmie Rodgers that was.
“Change,” the fastest and funkiest of the bunch, recalls the energy of an acoustic Earl Thomas as the slap of the guitar becomes an instrument in its own right. “I’ve been searchin’ for an escape from these blues/ Could it be you?” Davis intones and the organic chemistry between the two reaches an all-time high, his counterpart stretching the word “you” into shapes not unlike a snowflake. It’s the best his vocals get and the overlaps in lines prove these two have intangibles that other duos in the area simply don’t possess.
The momentum doesn’t slow down even when the music does. “Don’t Get in My Way” allows McWhorter to go for it vocally, and she dances all over the opportunity. Combining the softness of Alicia Keys and the girth of UK pop star Jessie J, this is the moment — three songs in, mind you — where the quick notion of her one-day becoming a breakout star turns into an honest possibility. Quiet or loud. Angry or sweet. Soulful or simple. She’s capable of doing it all, and one need not look much further than this slow blues for proof.
None of this is to imply that Davis doesn’t have potential in his own right. While his spastic solo on “Way” is a lightning bolt of electric fury relegated to acoustic strings, his feel is immaculate. Despite sloppy moments (“What Ya Think About Me” has its share of unfortunate, overreaching sections), you’d be hard pressed to find a more inspired, locally bred guitar player. Sure, “Crossroads Dance (Intro)” is a bit self-indulgent, but check the runs he pulls off during the first eight seconds of “Change” and you’ll realize all should be forgiven.
Why? Because there is far too much promise running through all of “Crossroads Dance” to hold any discrepancy against Dangerous Mood for too long. It’s not perfect, of course, but for the first time out of the box, it’s hard to think a guy and a girl could sound much better, much more in step with one another, or much more technically competent than Jordan McWhorter and Trevor Davis sound here. It’s a victory of riches that feels far from being fully realized … yet.
“Lately, you been barking up the wrong tree,” McWhorter sings at one point before asking with Adele-like attitude, “What you think about me?” The answer? Enough to know it might be best if we all put away our axes for a long, long time.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***