"Monkey Tongue" from the album Blackwig Yalobusha
"When people watch us set up, some of them assume it's just two women who're going to be kinda folky and stripped-down ... like the Indigo Girls or Ani DiFranco or something," chuckles singer/guitarist Melissa Swingle, of N.C. rock duo The Moaners. "After we hit them over the head with full-fledged rock 'n' roll, they're pleasantly surprised. Some say they're impressed that we sound like a four- or five-piece when actually we're just a two-piece band."
Swingle and bandmate Laura King make a unique racket on their new album, Blackwing Yalobusha (YepRoc). The simple instrumentation of electric guitar and drum kit is familiar to those who dig the likes of The White Stripes, Jucifer, Shannon Wright, The Flat Duo Jets, and so on. However, the off-balance guitar work and crisply syncopated percussion from Swingle and King stand out as less conventional. Too garage-rocky and quirky to qualify as genuine blues, and too driven by wild slide guitar work to tag as typical indie-rock, The Moaners are into something different.
"We're going for originality," says the guitarist. "It's hard for me to hear that people call us a blues band. Sure, there's blues influences, and you can here the slide guitar, but not every song is a blues song with a familiar structure."
Her vocal style leans more toward the tone of a drowsy groan than a blue singer's howl or moan. "My singing is what it is," Swingle laughs. "I'd love to have a beautiful voice like Patsy Cline or Neko Case, but I'm satisfied with the fact that I don't really sound like a lot of people. I have a distinctive voice ... and that's good. Bob Dylan was a major influence on me. He had such great songs and poetic lyrics, and he demonstrated that you did not have to sing like Frank Sinatra to be a 'good singer.' It inspired me."
The Moaners played their first actual shows in the Chapel Hill area in 2003, not long after Swingle stepped away from her previous band, Trailer Bride. King previously kept time with Chapel Hill rock band Grand National. As a duo, they signed with Chapel Hill's Yep Roc label in 2004 and recorded their debut, Dark Snack, in the studio with Southern Culture on the Skids guitarist Rick Miller working the sound board.
"Laura and I had both seen each other play in other bands," Swingle remembers. "I respected her a lot. She was, like, the best drummer I'd ever seen. We became friends, and we decided to get together to play music just for the fun of it. It became so much fun with such great musical chemistry that we started writing more songs and performing out."
The band recorded their new album last winter with former Tarheel musician Jimbo Mathus (formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, currently leading The Knockdown South) at the helm at his Blackwings studio facility in Como, Miss. It's the site of the old Money Shot studio, best known as the home of Fat Possum Records and blues legends like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Swingle grew up and went to college in Mississippi before relocating to N.C., so the session was a musical homecoming.
"I think I took the music of Mississippi for granted until I moved away," she says. "I got nostalgic. Something about stepping away from your roots makes you appreciate it more, I think. When we got the opportunity to record with Jimbo in a place where a lot of those old Fat Possum guys had recorded, we were excited. It was like an adventure. We just soaked up the atmosphere.
"We wanted to capture the atmosphere of the blues and the feeling of the South — Faulkner's South and O'Connor's South — but play with the form and take it somewhere new," she adds. "Being in that studio, smelling its smells, and walking among its ghosts, made the music just come out. It was almost as if it was coming from somewhere else, practically jumping out onto the tape."
The Blackwings session were the most rushed the band had ever experienced. Fortunately, they were well prepared. Swingle and King recorded all the tracks and vocal takes in just three days. The end result is raw, chaotic at times, totally confident throughout, and deeply immersed in the soulful spirit of the Mississippi hills. The woozy, pounding rocker "Foxy Brown," the snare-driven "Brainwash," and the sleazy "Monkey Tongue," sound as if six of Swingle's roadies are simultaneously de-tuning each of her guitar strings while the tape is rolling. Other songs swing so unexpectedly in different directions, it sounds as if Mathus was pressing his thumbs on the actual tape reels at certain moments to slow everything down — an effect that's both exciting and unsettling.
"I do like to use alternate tunings on different guitars on stage," says Swingle. "It's fun to play that way in a two-piece. It helps cover the bass end, and it's not so trebly. It makes it interesting."
Calling their full-fledged rock action "interesting" is an understatement. With their progressive take on blues, punk, noise, and beauty, Swingle and King could very set a new standard for the "rock duo" format.