Since their beginnings in the Kansas heartland a decade ago, guitarist Aaron Moreland and vocalist/harpist Dustin Arbuckle have captured the visceral spirit of the early 20th century Delta blues and the raw energy of post-World War II urban blues and distilled it all into a hard-driving and powerful garage-rock configuration of guitar, vocals, harp and drums.
Moreland & Arbuckle build on that solid foundation with the August 23, 2011, release of Just A Dream, their second album on Telarc International, a division of Concord Music Group. The 12-song set showcases Moreland’s dynamic and compelling guitar work – two tracks were recorded on his cigar-box guitar consisting of three guitar strings and one bass string – Arbuckle's emotionally charged vocals and edgy harp, and drummer Brad Horner's rock-solid backbeat. Just A Dream adds a few layers of sophistication to the rootsy sensibility previously captured in the band's acclaimed 2010 Telarc debut, Flood.
"The clear objective was to retain the gritty, raw feel that we created on our prior release, but push everything up about four notches as far as sound quality, the selection of songs, the production and every other aspect of the record," says Moreland. "Everything we've done in the past was set up in one big room and recorded in a couple days. On this record, we spent far more time, and our quality control was far more stringent than it’s ever been. And it shows. When this record was finished, I thought, 'Yeah, this is what I wanted to achieve.’ This record is fourteen steps beyond anything we’ve ever done before."
This heightened polish is partly the result of an ambitious tour schedule over the past 15 months. Since the release of Flood, Moreland & Arbuckle have crossed paths on the road with the likes of ZZ Top, George Thorogood, Jonny Lang, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Los Lonely Boys and other veterans who have mined the rich vein where the blues and rock intersect. Along the way, they picked up a few pointers about showmanship and how best to deliver the message, meanwhile, logging 82,000 road miles in just nine months in their Chevy Suburban.
"We've definitely taken a lot of cues on how to put on a good show," says Arbuckle. "We've developed a better understanding of how to work bigger crowds. You connect with a crowd in a certain way in a smaller club, but when you start getting into bigger venues, it's an entirely different dynamic."
But the real substance is in the music itself, which consists primarily of tunes penned by Moreland & Arbuckle but also borrows from outside sources in a couple instances. "White Lightnin'" is a contribution from legendary guitarist Steve Cropper, whose work with Booker T. and the MGs on the Stax label during the '60s and early '70s literally defined American soul music. In addition to contributing the song, Cropper also lays down a searing guitar solo to go with it. The result is an example of the band's mission to push the parameters established by their previous work.
"The version Steve sent us on a demo was kind of a slow blues tune," says Moreland. "Our version is about 45 miles an hour faster than the original. But it's a good tune regardless of how it’s played. It has a nice hook to it, and it was great to work with someone like Steve, who is about as prominent a figure as you can get when it comes to this kind of music."
Everything that comes before "White Lightnin'" is equally satisfying, beginning with “The Brown Bomber" and "Just A Dream," the throbbing opening tracks. "Purgatory" is a riff-driven declaration of primal need, either for something or someone. "Whether that thing or that person is good for you or not, you just need it and you just want it," says Arbuckle. "And you know it's probably not going to be good once you get it, or it might be good only for a minute but not for the long term. But the not having is the worst part."
The slow and churning "Travel Every Mile" spotlights Moreland's dirty guitar and Arbuckle's combination of earnest vocals and wailing harp, and laments the distance one must cross to return to a lover. The result is a haunting experience.
The swaggering "Heartattack and Vine," a song borrowed from the catalog of Tom Waits, has been a favorite of the Moreland & Arbuckle live show for a number of years. It's enhanced here with vocal effects that are atypical of the band’s live version.
The slow and melodic "Shadow Never Changes" is reminiscent of vintage Pink Floyd, thanks to the atmospheric guitar-keyboard combination beneath Arbuckle's esoteric lyrics. Equally mysterious is "So Low," an understated but insistent track that gives Moreland more room to slip in guitar lines that conjure the spirits of classic blues and vintage rock.
Just A Dream opens a new chapter for Moreland & Arbuckle, but there's still a great deal of story that has yet to unfold. "The possibilities are completely open," says Arbuckle. "Our music could go in so many interesting directions from here, and yet still maintain a significant piece of what it was at the very beginning. That's an exciting place to be."
If the band has any plan at all, it's "to just keep evolving and making great music without getting stuck in a rut," says Moreland. "This is the best record of our careers, and a jump-off point to rope in a lot of new fans that have never heard us before. I think we're lucky in that we have a unique sound and a unique style that I don't really hear anywhere else."