Without question, “Creeps & Cheaters” is the best album that’s ever been attached to the Red Sammy name. Based in Baltimore, the group is the brainchild of Adam Trice. His last two albums, “A Cheaper Kind Of Love Song” and “These Poems With Kerosene,” spotty as they were, showed occasional signs of life, moments where Trice’s blend of folk, Americana and indie rock meshed to create a sound unique, if not a little off-putting.
This time around, though? Well, this time around, the band seems more complete, more evolved. More so than it has in the past, Red Sammy hits its high spots and stays there, never allowing pretenses or The Sake Of Art get in the way. Sometimes, simplicity can prove to be the best road to walk down, even if it’s the one most traveled. With these nine songs, Trice and friends prove the journey is worth taking.
Single “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” ensures a memorable trip. It’s the set’s most solid moment, Eric Evetts’ performance reiterating how important it is to land a capable drummer (Ryan Bowen mans the sticks every other time drums are featured here, and while his work isn’t necessarily The Worst, the difference in groove between the two is both tangible and distinct). Combine that with Trice’s bare-boned guitar work, and you have a song that’s moody and infectious. Plus, after sitting through the repetition of the track’s namesake, you’ll be humming the phrase over and over in your sleep.
Speaking of repetition, check “Seeds,” which offers up a fabulously soulful guitar hook that announces Red Sammy as a group with pop-friendly tastes. Perhaps the most uptempo song here, its bass line adheres to a staccato, bluegrass-esque ethos that pushes everything forward with the help of a driving snare drum pattern. Then there’s Trice’s scratchy voice. This time around, it feels more hungry than it has in the past. When he asserts, “I love you baby/ But your life is a drag,” it’s bright enough to offset the darkness such an intonation suggests.
Still, “bright” has never been a word to adequately describe the guy’s vocals. He’s always been a capable stand-in for Tom Waits, but here, that signature growl is more refined. “Take A Ride” is even a bit reminiscent of a different Tom: Petty. Swinging like it’s one more dance for Mary Jane, it’s refreshing to hear the high harmonies that help fill out the track’s chorus. Even more impressive is Bruce Elliott’s short guitar soloing that gives the performance warmth.
Also warm? Opener “Dirty Water,” which might just be the creepiest this record gets. Trice hushes his voice in an ominous — if not overtly suggestive — manner that sets a tone smothered in shadows and darkness. Better yet is the bluesy electric guitar that adds a layer of rainy-day-mood perfect for reintroducing these guys as serious players. By the time Trice gets his pseudo-scream out, later in the song, it’s established that this isn’t your grandmother’s Red Sammy.
The same can be said for the simmering “Lion’s Lair,” which errs toward a specific blend of country ballad not compromised by over-snarling or under-performing. “Lawnchair” then brings the mandolin riffage to varying degrees of success, adding a specific roots element to the band’s formula that isn’t always there. And “Hangin’ With Uncle Elvis On Christmas” wraps the set well, its stripped-down macabre vibe accented nicely by John Decker’s Resonator.
While these guys improve each time they get up to bat, “Creeps & Cheaters” is a significant step in the evolution of a band that has spent its early years searching for identity, all the while coming up on the wrong side of endearing. But with this set, Red Sammy and Adam Trice seem much more confident, much more accepting of who they are, and more importantly, what they want to be. The flaws are hidden. The positives are celebrated. All told, these nine songs combine for a victory of maturity rather than another step toward mediocrity.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***