Sunday, December 11, 2016

CD Review: Greg 'Stackhouse' Prevost's Universal Vagrant (2016)

Greg Stackhouse Prevost's Universal Vagrant
Greg ‘Stackhouse’ Prevost is, perhaps, best-known as the former frontman of garage-rock legends the Chesterfield Kings. Over the course of 30 years and better than a dozen albums, Prevost and his band of merry pranksters forged a reputation with worldwide reach, and new fans continue to discover and embrace the CKs to this day, almost seven years since the band’s demise. Prevost is also well-known as a record collector and respected as an author and music historian; you can find his writing on blues and rock ‘n’ roll in niche music zines like Ugly Things and Shindig!

When the Kings broke up in 2009, Prevost returned to his blues roots, which wasn’t as big a move as many of his peers have made. Prevost has true blues bona fides; he became enamored of the music at age ten after seeing the legendary Son House perform in his hometown of Rochester, New York. Even a casual spin of many of the Chesterfield Kings’ albums reveal the band’s blues underpinnings. So it was no surprise when Prevost tacked ‘Stackhouse’ to his name and released 2013’s excellent, critically-acclaimed Mississippi Murderer album on Mean Disposition Records, an indie label located in Barcelona, Spain. Three years later, Prevost has issued his follow-up for the label, the equally engaging and entertaining Universal Vagrant.

Greg ‘Stackhouse’ Prevost’s Universal Vagrant

Universal Vagrant opens with a raucous take on Allen Shaw’s country-blues classic “Moanin’ The Blues” (not to be confused with the Hank Williams song of the same name). Whereas Shaw’s original is a morose, acoustic, meek blues dirge, Prevost amps up both the wattage and the attitude, his Jagger-styled vocal drawl accompanied by reckless Keith Richards-inspired rattletrap guitar. In the background, a lonely harmonica groans, but it’s the rhythm section’s fluid, roots ‘n’ blues groove (courtesy of bassist Alex Patrick and drummer Zachary Koch) that provides the soapbox atop which Prevost’s wailing vocals stand.

Universal Vagrant doesn’t drop the ball after the rowdy opening track, nosirree; Prevost’s original “Gin-Soaked Time Warp” is as equally bodacious as the album-opener, with plenty of slash ‘n’ burn git licks, brain-bashing percussion, a ramshackle musical arrangement, and boozy, bluesy lyrics that sound like they’ve traveled through a time warp themselves from the dawn of the 1970s. Keenan Bartlett’s keyboard flourishes are eerie like a Louisiana swamp at midnight, but it’s Prevost’s clamorous fretwork that drives the song like a runaway freight-train beneath his mesmerizing, red-eyed vocals.

Shot of Rock & Roll

There aren’t a lot of cover songs to be found on Universal Vagrant, but the few you’ll hear are inspired takes on heady, albeit obscure tunes. Prevost had to dig deep into his rock ‘n’ roll songbook for Arthur Lee’s post-Love track “Signed D.C.” while his choice of the great Muddy Waters’ “Mean Red Spider” reaches back to the blues legend’s Mississippi Delta roots. The former takes the underrated Lee’s song into unfamiliar territory, Prevost’s vibrating guitar churn reminiscent of Hilton Valentine’s familiar riff on “House of the Rising Sun,” but Prevost’s stunning harp work and deliberate vocal pattern puts Eric Burdon's efforts to shame with its dour, depressed vibe. The latter performance takes Waters’ raw Delta blues original and substitutes snarling vocals and a wiry recurring riff in delivery of the song’s metaphorical heartbreak lyrics.

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Codine” is provided a brilliantly tortured revision, a screaming guitar lick punctuating Prevost’s anguished vocals, his reading of the anti-drug ballad closer in spirit to Quicksilver Messenger Service’s blues-rock version than the folkie original (or even Gram Parson’s rootsy version). Prevost’s original songs are every bit as ‘fab’ as his inspired choice in covers, tho’. For instance, the stomping, stammering “Evil On My Mind” lays the smackdown on your candy ass with menacing guitar licks, gritty vocals, explosive drumbeats, and a smothering rhythmic arrangement guaranteed to provide nightmares. The song slithers to conclusion with an intricate, serpentine ‘outro’ that is deceptively beguiling and brilliantly creative.

The throwback vibe of Prevost’s “Shot of Rock & Roll” benefits from a raunchy, Chuck Berry styled flurry of opening notes before settling restlessly (and recklessly) into a rockabilly-tinged groove that has more in common with shitkickers of yore like Hasil Adkins or Charlie Feathers than it does with the homogenized, whitebread artists cranked out by the major labels in the early ‘60s. As the rhythm section choogles along, Prevost spits out his rapidfire vox alongside a torrent of rebellious guitar licks. Likewise, Prevost’s “Shitkicker Blues” is an Exile-era Stones-influenced amalgam of Southern blues, soul, and greasy rock ‘n’ roll with fatback rhythms and searing fretwork that revels in its joyous cacophony.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Greg ‘Stackhouse’ Prevost’s Universal Vagrant is a solid sophomore effort and a worthy follow-up to the artist’s acclaimed solo debut. Prevost’s vocals are an inspired mix of Mick Jagger, David Johansen (New York Dolls), and Sky Saxon (The Seeds), but it’s his fretwork that shines the brightest on Universal Vagrant. Underrated as a skilled fret-bender, Prevost’s bluesy guitar playing shimmies and shakes throughout these performances like an elemental force of nature. His songwriting is expressive and imaginative, at once both contemporary and rustic in its traditionalism, and his backing band is aces.

Whereas Mississippi Murderer was informed by its Delta blues obsessions, Universal Vagrant brings Prevost’s Texas blues influences to the forefront. One can easily hear Johnny Winter’s twangy slide-guitar or Lightnin’ Hopkins’ intricate finger-picking in the album’s grooves. An entertaining, imaginative album, the artistic voice of Universal Vagrant is a logical evolution from Prevost’s previous band, and unlike any other blues/blues-rock album you’ll hear this year. Grade: A+ (Mean Disposition Records, released November 25, 2016)

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