It's not age or gender or backstory that makes Chapel Hill's The Moaners one of the most relevant bands on Yep Roc Records' lengthy but partially passé roster. Pure and simple, it's gusto and wherewithal, the two characteristics that define the duo's sophomore release, Blackwing Yalobusha. Indeed, it's a record that's about overcoming obstacles—lyrically, musically and pragmatically.
First, there's the story: Moaners Melissa Swingle and Laura King headed South to Swingle's home state of Mississippi to record with Jimbo Mathus. But the power was out in his shop, so they wound up alongside Mathus at Money Shot Studios, a place blues heroes like R.L. Burnside made famous years ago. Appropriately, Blackwing's got a dirty, tube-amp crackle. It feels like new-school reclamation.
For a duo that's accustomed to drums-and-guitar confinement, The Moaners take some interesting chances for Blackwing: Swingle, most noticeably, is playing slide guitar here, and—if she sounds new to it—it's because she is. But some of her beginner's choices—the shambolic, wah-wah wail of "Foxy Brown," the sigh-and-stomp of "Monkey Tongue"— are shaky but perfect in their uncertainty. On "Dreamin' About Flyin'," one of the best tracks here, The Moaners build a four-minute pop song out of King's simple, looped bassline. Common knowledge harangues such, but The Moaners turn it into one of the more clever moments on an already excellent album.
But the most telling aspect of derring-do here comes through Swingle's lyrics and her perfect delivery: Across the first 11 tracks, Swingle deals almost exclusively in questions of overcoming rigors or dismissing expectations. There's the narrative of "Foxy Brown," reimagined as a new folk hero who's "all brown sugar and spice" with "a black belt in bar stool." "Yankee on My Shoulder" finds Swingle questioning decency, her perfectly nonchalant drawl tossing the notion of being all right all the time aside like it's no thing.
Take special note of "Hopelessly Lost," a track that combines all three Moaner braveries: "Went out walking on a cloudy day with a worried mind/ that wouldn't go away," Swingle sings, a perfect Southern storyteller setting up a tough scene. King keeps the rhythm simple, heavy and emphatic while Swingle takes one of the album's only turns at fierce, wailing-wall harmonica. She's stuck in a blackberry patch, lost and wasting the day. But when she finally resigns herself to occasional failure, her mind gets clear and things get better. It's an allegory, and—coming right before the giddy sweetness of "I Think I Love You"—it's an ode to surviving and conquering.
The Moaners throw a CD release party for Blackwing Yalobusha at Cat's Cradle with Un Deux Trois and Spider Bags Saturday, March 31, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.