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As one cog in the leaderless wheel known as the No-Neck Blues Band, Dave Shuford makes music so thoroughly unplanned that even he and his bandmates can't predict what it will sound like. NNCK don't just improvise, they don't even discuss what they're going to play, traversing many styles and moods with no safety net save the one that emerges from their collective creativity. Compared to NNCK's free-form tightrope-walk, Shuford's side project D. Charles Speer and the Helix can sound downright risk-averse. A straight-up roots-rock band, the Helix deal in moves that any fan of alt-country has memorized: twangy guitars, swinging piano chords, honky-tonk beats, tear-in-beer ballads. Distillation, the group's second studio album, is its most unapologetically traditional, full of 10 well-worn songs that rarely stray far from the patterns set by each opening bar.
And yet, just as NNCK's seemingly random improvisations coalesce into unforeseen peaks, the Helix offer quite a few surprises lurking below the familiar surface of Distillation. One of them is actually right there on top-- Shuford's low, creaking voice, an impressively emotive tool that makes otherwise plain lines sound wistful, wry, even creepy. "But in the end, everything works out fine," he sings in opening road-poem "Mason Dixon Crime", instilling the words with knowing irony. On the slow, stoic "Open Season", his bellow makes consolations like "If it seems there's no way out/ At least you've earned some clout/ By tying up loose ends" sound more resigned than resolved, suggesting that even simple goals like closure are ultimately mixed blessings.
As Distillation progresses, the songs slowly grow stranger, and stretch out into looser, more open territory. On the intoxicating swinger "Life Insurance", pianist Hans Chew spins a comic yarn about the trials and tribulations of making all your appointments on time, even if your doctor "just makes it worse" and "drives a beautiful hearse." The heavier "Gravedigger" is even weirder, a melange of odd imagery set against rising music that feels like a classic-rock epic, filled with Chew's pounding keys, Marc Orleans' ripping guitar solos, and passages of wistful, "Layla"-like sway. Interestingly, the album's most far-out tune, "The Fallika Stair", does away with words altogether, carving a path from Russian-sounding waltz to star-seeking guitar jam.
Throughout these well-crafted songs, shades of proven trad-rock tweakers seep through, from the mature lilt of Wilco to the proggy curves of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, back to the ethno-ripping stomps of Camper Van Beethoven and even the stoned lurch of the Grateful Dead's most rural moments. But the closest parallel to the Helix's smokey croon is the drunken balladry of North Carolina's Spider Bags. Play that group's excellent Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World back-to-back with Distillation whenever you want to wash away any fears of alt-country's demise.