Seemingly straight up MC5 wannabees, the Immortal Lee County Killers enjoy howling over top of fairly typical blues rock. Despite the well-worn territory, there is something to enjoy here.
Really from Lee County, in Alabama (are they really killers too?), ILCK formed in `99 as a duo of guitar and drums. From what I’ve read, they tore it up back then, guitarist and singer Chetley Weise being so aggressive and noisy that they barely could claim a blues base. After their first album, their drummer had changed to Toko the Drifter, a man of many names I have also seen called J.R.R. Token and The Token One; I can only guess at what his hobbies include. For this, their third, they have added Jeff Goodwin on organ and vocals, moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and seemingly have calmed things down bit.
ILCK play up their Southern upbringing to the max, throughout their career having covered R.L. Burnside, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and many traditional Southern blues tunes and have even named a song “Robert Johnson.” After all, Lee County is ‘only an afternoon drive from the Mississippi Delta’ their bio informs us, later also quoting Southern author Flannery O’Connor.
Okay, so they like the blues and want us to believe they are entitled to play it. But how are the songs? Well, they’re alright, but some are pretty forgettable. “Airline” catches my attention after the verses lay low, when it breaks into pounding unison rhythms under Doors-style organ. “Boom Boom” shows Weise channeling Rob Tyner even more than usual in a rockin’ track that must be like their more hyper past work. “Lights Down Low” is the one ballad here, and it has a nice Stones á la Sticky Fingers feel to it. But songs like “Wide as the Sky” with its uninteresting vocal line and the lumbering “Blues” pass by without making much of an impression. Better production could beef up some of these songs to make them passable and give them more life, but their lack of bass may also be hindering them. On the other hand though, the lack of a bass anchor does keep them from a usual pitfall of a lot of modern blues-based bands: guitar solo wankery. I’m happy that there is not a single guitar solo to be found on These Bones.
Actually, my favorite tracks are the ones where they forgo the typical rock instrumentation altogether. The acoustic “Stitched in Sin,” a drum-less tune with low drawling vocals mixing with up-an-octave backups and some nice understated electric piano (possibly an organ setting), stands out in a good way. But even more so I like closer “No More My Lord,” which is an a cappella blues standard, with a ‘long handled axe’ keeping the slow beat; I’m guessing originally this song may have been sung while doing a task like chopping firewood. It’s something cool to hear a band try these days, but some people may be put off with it coming from a young white guy. Overall, I think the calming down of ILCK is to their advantage, as they can play up their love for the blues even more and go in different directions with it. Though the Mooney Suzuki beat them to the punch as MC5 imitators, ILCK are now going further back in time to what influenced their influences, while the Mooney Suzuki is just glossing things over for a failed attempt at mass consumption (2004’s Alive & Amplified).
But similarly to their counterparts, ILCK’s lyrics leave something to be desired. They state the obvious ("making love feels good") in “The Damned Don’t Cry,” seem to just kill time without saying anything ("Silver angel / Sonic lover / Do you love love?") in “Sonic Angel” and play into their MC5 comparisons even more with the choice of the Jon Spencer-penned “Revolution Summer” -- their version could have fit nicely on Kick Out the Jams. But Suzuki tops them with their truly cringe-worthy lines, so I guess it could be worse.
So many young blues-based bands don’t go further than Zeppelin for inspiration; at least ILCK know the roots of their music and acknowledge it. While their songwriting is not especially consistent, they do try and stretch an over-worked genre by taking it new places but also revisiting old places. With so many blues rock bands out there, the Immortal Lee County Killers prove they can compete.