According to Geordie McElroy, frontman for the band Blackwater Jukebox, he is a preeminent ethnomusicologist whose songwriting is inspired by the myths and music he uncovered during his years of globetrotting research for the Smithsonian Institute. Ask any of Geordie McElroy’s extremely vocal critics however, and they’ll accuse him of glib cultural appropriation and musical plagiarism, all cloaked in the guise of scholarly research he may or may not have actually conducted. While the complete truth about Geordie McElroy may never be known (even to Geordie himself), this much is certain: Blackwater Jukebox makes fun music.
No Blackwater Jukebox recording captures that sense of fun better than “The Howling,” the title track from the band’s 2016 EP. After Blackwater’s line-up ballooned to an impressive if unwieldy nine members, McElroy decided to whittle the instrumentation down to a core of five: banjo, bassoon, bass, drums and guitar. This leaner and tighter Blackwater is able to deftly tackle the tricky tempo changes and frenetic pace in “The Howling.” By recording the band live in their home studio, guitarist/producer Jonathan Soucy captures the rare sound of a band actually having fun together while working on an album.
As with songs like “Carousel,” “Bone Yard” and “Black Rain,” McElroy again returns to the lyrical theme of death’s inevitability, this time explored through the story of a man who lives in fear of the murderous werewolf that lurks within him. McElroy often revels in the mystical, the magical and the macabre, and this song offers up a great blend.
“On Jordan’s stormy bank I stand / border town to the promised land / Lord oh Lord oh Lord what could I do?” laments the song’s cursed anti-hero as the tempo quickens and the band begins to literally howl. His conclusion that “no one’s escaping destiny” applies to the victims and the unwilling murderer alike.
Blending unlikely elements is one of the great joys of Blackwater Jukebox, and McElroy’s galloping, rapid-fire lyrics owe a lot to his rap influences. Over the last quarter century, hip hop has cross-pollinated with rock, metal and even country music. But Blackwater Jukebox may still be the only band to try and blend rap with Eastern European folk standards. The fact that it’s being done by a band of over-educated white LA hipsters only seems to add fuel to the fire of McElroy’s passionate critics. But when the music is this fun, who really cares?