On the jaunty “Mr. Saturday Night,” Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers feel like a silkier imagining of Rickie Lee Jones’ be-bop hipster cool. The teasing tale of a working-class guy who can find a good time anywhere bounces along, drums clicking, full of chop-chop guitar syncopation and Bluhm’s luscious street-corner bravado.
It suggests Little Feat, a bit of Maria Muldaur, even The Band with a bit of New Orleans thrown in. But what really defines the Gramblers is their ability to distill the California post-hippie country-rock, folk and pop experience without becoming a psychedelic Byrds/Gram Parsons/CSN Xerox.
The influences run deep: “Simpler Times” suggests Dolly Parton’s “To Daddy” run through a Bakersfield tavern, “Waiting On Love” is pure Alex Chilton pop confection with a Rickenbacker shot and side of lush Mamas & Papas harmony. The stumbling dissonance of “Me & Slim” slinks through Crazy Horse territory, especially the bawdy electric solo on the vamp as Bluhm drags Valerie Carter’s honey-coated, wide-open desire through the tale of runaway rockers.
It’s not mannered, nor do the seams show. Perhaps the fact Bluhm is married to Mother Hips guitarist/songwriter Tim Bluhm makes them the sunnier Civil Wars or a rootsier Buckingham-Nicks or just their own love of this music creates something fresh from obscure, if classic influences.
Working with producer Brian Deck (Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse), their American roots palette expanded. Magik*Magik Orchestra offer string arrangements that take a song like “High Neck Lace” from Americana-pretty to staggeringly holy, capturing your ear by threading the loneliness and rising B-3 chords with bows-across-strings cello echoes.
Even “Queen of the Rodeo,” a picture of a rodeo girl’s life, is tender in the face of a man who mocked her dream. Hard as the dream is, the heroine—like the vocalist—refuses to succumb to the obvious. What could be retro-country mawkishness is given dignity and deliverance, professing “the innocence still can be real.”
The subliminal Georgia Satellites’ “Hands To Yourself” guitar figure that opens “Heartache” adds a rock twang that toughens up the sweet-voiced Bluhm’s swagger. Like so many of the frayed and torn songs d’amour on Loved Wild Lost, she can and will survive.
Bluhm may ache along the way, but she—and guitarist Deren Ney, bassist Steve Adams, rhythm guitarist Dave Mulligan, and drummer Mike Curry—understand suppleness is the key. Shining, triumphant, anything but worse for the wear, the ground broken by Haim and Grace Potter is now sown with vaster influences, bringing a churchy elevation that suggests Levon Helm in an angel’s body.