May 24, 2023

There is something about the blues that acts as a music teacher. It seems as if most lead guitarists start there, before spreading out into pop, soul, funk, rock or country, according to their taste. Samantha Fish started there before trawling through rock and southern-state folk – Jesse Dayton veered more into country territory, working with the likes of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, before they both fetched up at their current location in retro indie punk. Fish has known Dayton for over 10 years, but eventually teamed up with him in 2022 for an EP named Stardust Sessions, which was encouraging enough for them to record a full-length album together, this year’s grungy Death Wish Blues. A true collaboration, they share equal billing on the front cover, as well as on songwriting, vocals and guitar, although they also give a lot of credit to producer Jon Spencer for pulling more out of them than they knew they had.

photo by Daniel Sanda

Fish opens the show though, with the dirty slide riff and mid-tempo beat of Deathwish. Dayton wrote the lyrics for this one, but it had to be sung by Sam, being based on a lot of true-crime documentaries and the general mistreatment of women. Her Amy Winehouse smoky but fluid vocal style works a treat, with Dayton whispering ominously underneath. Dayton takes the lead on the second song, Down In The Mud, which could genuinely be proto-heavy rock straight from 1970, in both structure and tone. The sound funks up a little for Riders, which is sung as a duet; a verse each, then a line or two each, underpinned with springy synths reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. Trauma reverts to the retro sounds but delves even deeper, with a mad mix of heavy psychedelic prog and rock, including multiple rhythm changes and scrunchy, wildly fuzzy guitars in an almost Captain Beefheart mode. The vocal line is by Dayton, and mostly spoken, or more kind of growled really, and for some reason I see the actor Tommy Lee Jones in my mind; their voices are similar.

It’s not until track six that a ballad of sorts appears, with Sam singing No Apology. It builds into a full soul number, with a slightly off-kilter lyric that takes a romantic basis and wrenches it out of joint – as Sam says, “It’s a love song but sort of twisted, because that’s the only kind of love song I write.”  The vocal duet Lover On The Side raises the tempo a degree, taking a dive into the punky pub rock of Dr. Feelgood, but then an acoustic resonator guitar introduces the semi-spoken Rippin’ And Runnin’, on which Sam simply sounds furious. Punk anthem Dangerous People features some interesting metallic percussion; I wondered what it was, until I discovered that they are following Jon Spencer’s instructions by literally bashing on beer cans gathered from the back yard. The album finishes on the downbeat You Know My Heart, with its guitar intro reminiscent of the Stones’ Paint It Black.

With Fish toting her cigar-box axe and Dayton getting mileage out of a baritone guitar, both artists have a backstreet, vintage aesthetic, which is really riding the zeitgeist at the moment – and with this imaginative mix of heavy pub blues and fuzz-ridden retro rock, this could be an iconic album of the decade. In any case, it’s a great side-note to both of their resumés. It will be fascinating to follow these musical wanderers to see where they pop up next.

Death Wish Blues by Samantha Fish and Jesse Dayton is available now via Rounder Records