While it can be dangerous to depart from a long trend like Titus Andronicus did last month, it is perhaps more dangerous to change styles before one has even established themselves. Once long ago a baby faced Van Morrison took a huge risk and released an ethereal, psychedelic oddity called Astral Weeks. His only hit as Van Morrison had been “Brown Eyed Girl,” a silly pop song compared to what was on Weeks, and the departure failed. Records didn’t sell and critics didn’t even give the record the time of day. Had Van not returned to his 10 piece pop masterpieces on Saint Dominic’s Preview and His Band and the Street Choir, and persisted with the Astral Weeks style, we may not remember Van Morrison as anything more than the one hit wonder behind “Brown Eyed Girl.” But then, history shines brightly on Astral Weeks, as public opinion slowly lined up with the once minority of the minority opinion of Lester Bangs. So maybe history will shine more brightly on Dorothy’s 28 Days in the Valley than I will today.
Dorothy’s debut album, ROCKISDEAD, would have been my album of the year 2016 had Brian Fallon’s masterpiece Painkillers come out a few months earlier pushing it back into 2015. Songwriter Dorothy Martin talks a lot about the influence of 90s rock on her songwriting for that album but what attracted me to it was the heavy blues influence. It was like if Ozzy Osbourne had produced John Lee Hooker with vocals by a Tina Turner-style gospel singer. “Kiss It” was probably my “get pumped” anthem for months, and the slide guitar on “Gun In My Hand” demonstrated something I had long suspected – punk needs more slide.
The single that came between ROCKISDEAD and the announcement of 28 Days in the Valley, “Down to the Bottom,” was a great elaboration on what ROCKISDEAD pioneered with heavier gospel elements added to it. Though simplistic, “Down to the Bottom” gets everything right with its balance of punk, blues, and gospel. Its sparse chord changes make the ones that are there all the more powerful, and the production advanced from basic punk blues into an atmospheric type of gospel punk. It’d probably the best track they’ve released yet.
Now, in 28 Days… well, let’s start with the positive. The drums are absolutely amazing. I don’t just mean the drumming performance, which is just as great as it was on the first album, but the sounds of the hits themselves. Where RID’s drum hits were fairly muted, little decay and no resonance, the drum hits on 28 Days ring. The decay is much longer in a great way, making them sound less artificial in a way that suits Dorothy’s style. Furthermore, I don’t know if lead singer Dorothy Martin wasn’t capable of these vocal performances on the last record or if producer Linda Perry just brought out something new in her but the singing on this album is more ambitious and it pays off. The dynamism between flashy dramatics and a more contained style works great. They’re really the star of the show.
Maybe it’s that centrality of the vocals and their style that makes me feel this record has some deep roots in gospel that were absent in ROCKISDEAD. I’ve been avoiding comparing Martin to Aretha Franklin this entire article but on songs like “Ain’t Our Time To Die” you can’t not hear it. Listening to “Mountain” I thought to myself “this is like if Jimmy Page produced Sweet Honey in the Rock” (most of you will have to Google that one but it’ll be worth the Google).
But on the tracks that don’t have that gospel element – “We Are STAARS,” “Flawless,” “Black Tar and Nicotine” – Dorothy feels a little bit trite and cliched. It’s fine San Francisco pop, something like if Jefferson Airplane had been a little bit darker. Martin keeps describing the album as “psychedelic” a comparison I really don’t hear. There’s no exploratory guitar work like Jimi Hendrix, very little experimentation in the production like Cream’s finest, nothing remotely resembling the odd songwriting evident in Traffic’s works. It’s certainly like something out of the Summer of Love at times, but not all Flower Power was psychedelic.
Fans of 28 Days are going to read this and think I’m just bitter that I didn’t get what I wanted, but it’s not quite that simple. Sure I’m mad that Brian Fallon didn’t further pursue his alt-country style on Sleepwalkers but I can still listen to Wilco if I want that. ROCKISDEAD was an album not quite like any other blues punk I’d heard before. Black Pistol Fire isn’t quite so John Lee Hooker. Jane Lee Hooker isn’t so bare bones and energetic. North Mississippi Allstars aren’t so Led Zeppelin. In short, I’m not mad that 28 Days in the Valley isn’t the album I wanted, I’m mad that I don’t know where to go instead that will have that album I wanted 28 Days to be.
28 Days in the Valley is available now.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.