D. Charles Speer & The Helix

Doubled Exposure

There is always a certain electricity to be found on albums that sound as if they are the result of having all their bits and pieces worked out, both technically and emotionally, whilst playing live exhaustively before even thinking of recording. Outstanding examples from the past decade that are not too far removed, relatively speaking, from the D. Charles Speer & The Helix aesthetic are Howlin’ Rain’s impeccable The Russian Wilds as well as early White Denim. Doubled Exposure does tingle throughout with the energy of a communion between breathtaking musicians flying through this rather derivative, extremely boozy, occasionally shallow southern rock from the mind of Dave Charles Shuford, also of experimental improv veterans No Neck Blues Band and who released an intriguing Greek-infused solo LP in 2011, Arghiledes.

Indeed, such is the instrumental excellence from Shuford’s peerless band that one might see D. Charles Speer & The Helix as a kind of yokel version of White Rabbits. The subject matter, however, leads this album into rather more bacchanalian territory, tearing through (a lot of) drinking, gambling, general hedonism and other perhaps clichéd, stereotypical preoccupations of the South. At his best and most mournful, Georgia-born New Yorker Shuford is reminiscent of the hoary wisdom of the massively underrated country miserablist Johnny Dowd, though without the more sensitive, noir-fixated core. This band cannot help but get over-excited.

While still impressively nihilistic, the result of that exuberance is what many seem to refer to as ‘barroom boogie’. With its forced bravado and knowing goofiness, this has considerable potential to irritate, and indeed they do spill over into what seems like parody on ‘The Heated Hand’, which even if it is tongue-in-cheek does nothing to add to the album. It must be said, however, that things do marginally stay on the tasteful side of boogie-woogie, closer to something mildly disturbing and untamed than to Jools Holland’s crimes. But it certainly is not for everyone. Another objection must be that the theme of drinking is emphasised too enthusiastically at times, the sound effect of a bottle being poured at the start of ‘Bootlegging Blues’ being an unnecessary addition to songs that already drip with whiskey and hangovers.

Yet there are plenty of things to like on Doubled Exposure. Schuford is at his best when allowing things to sprawl and for styles – as well as the colossal talents of his band – to overlap. ‘Cretan Lords’ is an interesting hodge-podge of ideas, offering a bouzouki reflecting Schuford’s profound explorations on Arghiledes as well as the odd Spanish rhythm, combined with the band’s relentless drive: a sadder, more complex Lynyrd Skynyrd if you will.

The most absorbing track must be the 10-minute ‘Mandoria At Dawn’, a wandering beast of a thing that becomes its own Americana-ised incarnation of psychedelia, one heavily indebted to Frank Zappa circa Hot Rats. This woozy abandon returns on closer ‘Tough Soup’, while a more restrained mood, and the album’s most mature songwriting, is very welcome on the title track, a rare respite on a record that may occasionally get on one’s nerves, yet undoubtedly overflows with vitality.

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