Boy, Hard Swimmin’ Fish are fun, aren’t they? A staple in the Frederick music scene for what seems like a lifetime, the quartet’s live show has been a must-see for anyone who is even slightly familiar with the downtown music scene. The old-fashioned suits. The harp that blows hurricanes through the speaker of a telephone. The upright bass. The crazy-looking, unconventional drum kit. It’s a ball of entertainment each time it convenes, be it on the small stage at JoJo’s or on the streets during a First Saturday.
But how does that energy translate in the studio? The answer to that question is nuanced. Sure, the visual novelties that accompany the group are invisible, and yeah, there’s historically been something that gets lost in this genre when you try to take it from the stage into the recording booth. But with “True Believer,” the band’s latest set, these guys display the ability to keep their unique blend of Americana, roots and blues in tact all the while purporting a rendition of the signature flair that makes their performances so memorable.
“Ooh, That Was Close” embodies as much. Led forward with a driving train beat, it’s everything that makes Hard Swimmin’ Fish so endearing: a ragtime vibe soaked in humor and a light heart made all the more intriguing with a series of solos from Demian Lewis’s six-string and Waverly Milor’s white-hot harp. It’s just quirky enough to put a smile on your face — especially with Milor’s exasperated ad-libs that help fade the track to its end.
The same urgency shines on “Come Together” and “Mess Around.” The latter is a modern day juke joint classic-in-the-making, recalling echoes of Ray Charles, who recorded the song all the way back in 1953. It turned out to be one of the legend’s first hits and the Fish do it justice all the way through the sprightly utterance of “I declare” that’s sure to make you smirk. The former then begins with Southern guitar work that practically makes the speakers sweat with its homage to delta textures and a deliciously swampy harmonica brightens the murky haze of humidity that circles the structure.
Even the ballads work. “Need Your Love So Bad” thrives with its tradition, a straight-ahead slow dance that’s accentuated with the help of guest John Sharrer’s organ. It’s a tiny touch that makes all the difference in the world, suggesting it might be wise to add a fifth to this school of Fish on a full-time basis. “Love Me Or You Don’t” also slows things down, albeit it with more funk and a groove that slithers more than it saunters. It’s got that trademark sound these guys have perfected through the years: Pop blues with a touch of soul that opens up for some killer guitar work on behalf of Lewis.
They stumble only when they lean too far toward the pop side of that equation. “Five Years Hard Labor” is fine enough with its jaunty structure and musical breaks that help the song get in and out of its payoff line, but it just feels like the record would be better served with a return to the Delta. “Love Me Or You Don’t” is better, Milor’s subtle playing giving the track a smokey backdrop, though even the pool hall atmosphere can’t save it from the throes of mediocrity.
Worry not, however, because the fuzz that paints “No Shortage Of The Blues” epitomizes rock grit in an era when such things aren’t nearly as valued as they once were. Lewis even rewards listeners with a Stevie-Ray-ian rip that helps bridge the space between choruses. And then there’s the secret track that might just be the entire set’s best moment. Fully equipped with faded vocals and a loose rhythm, it sounds like the best front porch party you could find in 2017. The group backing harmonies also add an unexpected communal ethos to a band that makes its bones making people feel welcome.
Which, of course, leads us back to the beginning: How does Hard Swimmin’ Fish’s live energy translate in the studio? Well, in the case of “True Believer,” the answer is quite well. Polished but not shinny, uncompromising but not sloppy, bluesy but not inaccessible, honest but not heavy, this record captures the quartet in a light under which they’ve never been able to shine previously. And while the water through which they swim might be occasionally cloudy, these aquatic creatures have never sounded so clean.
It’s enough to make a believer out of anybody.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***