Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: The Tomas Doncker Band - Howlin' Wolf EP

Tomas Doncker stared his career in New York City in the midst of the no wave movement, playing guitar for bands like James Chance and the Contortions. No wave was all about deconstructing music; it was punk rock to the absolute logical extreme. Lydia Lunch, a prominent player in the scene, has admitted to never learning a single chord on guitar, yet she played guitar for her early band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. She was also quick to point out they had nothing in common with punk. After all, punk still used chords and progressions, and no wave was a rejection of that.

So it's fascinating to me that here we are some thirty years in the future and Tomas Doncker not only ended up becoming a well regarded session player (still in the realm of experimental though: one prominent person he played sideman to was Yoko Ono) but is now applying his skills to a covers EP with his new self-titled band of Howlin' Wolf classics.

But it does make sense in its own way. If no wave was the most primal deconstruction of rock music, then the next step is the first foundation; the primordial ooze so to speak. Is that not the blues? This is just the next logical step in evolution for Doncker, albeit thirty years after he had moved to different styles (he describes the one he primarily plays now as “global soul”).

Photo by Phillip Jarrell
The real surprise then, though it shouldn't be if you noticed his contributions to studio sessions all these years since he gave up deconstruction, is the technical prowess and verve with which Doncker and his band approach the Howlin' Wolf songs on their new EP.
The production is bold and lush, and maybe you can attribute that to the time Doncker has spent in the studio with famous names. He clearly knows how to make a record sound good. It's even full of dynamics, a rarity in our extremely over-compressed world. It is not raw though, that's for sure. Rawness was not the goal. This isn't a punk take on the blues; it's a pro take on the blues.

For better or worse, Doncker's become a pro through the years. That means the playing on this EP is superb and they run through the songs with all the dirt and grit of a seasoned bar band. You see yourself sitting in a night club, hearing this live under blue lights while you're sipping on a stiff drink.

It lacks the rawness I often appreciate in my blues, though. It's not wild or chaotic. It is executed with precision, like it or not. That works for what they're doing though, especially on album highlight “Shook Down,” where Doncker and his band take a restrained, sensual approach to the song, bringing it low until the very calculated moment when they explode into a blaze of sexually charged blues rock.

It all works extremely well, but at the same time, you get the impression this is even more energetic and highly charged live. You feel like you're there, but you're not, and you want to be. One can only imagine hearing them run through these songs in the moment. To be sure, they're probably more spontaneous and fueled.

If you can't see them live though, the Tomas Doncker Band has provided an excellent documentation of their sound to give you the next best thing. There's nothing like the real thing, but it's damn close.