The Moaners slide down to 'ssippi for their second LP | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The Moaners slide down to 'ssippi for their second LP 

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Read our Record Review and listen to a track from Blackwing Yalobusha.

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  • The Moaners

When people talk about Mississippi being a whole other part of the world, they're talking about places like the Sardis Motel. That's where The Moaners stayed while they recorded their new album, Blackwing Yalobusha. They weren't alone in the Sardis. There in those Mississippi lands, The Moaners—singer-guitarist Melissa Swingle and drummer Laura King—were living with real, live reptiles.

"There's this alligator in the lobby. It's in a big aquarium, right there in the lobby; not only that, but there are a bunch of little kittens running around," says Swingle, who was born in Mississippi. "I'm like, 'Keep the kittens away from the alligator.' Or is that what they feed the alligator?"

Swingle wasn't always so intrigued by her Mississippi surroundings. As a child, her father loved the blues, but she didn't embrace the regional sound when it was spinning on his turntable.

"Maybe because I associated that with old people's music because my dad listened to it," Swingle says with a dry, flat twang. But time and distance brought her back to the delta sound. "I'm like, 'I remember this music.' It touches something inside in me that's hard to explain. And when I heard Mississippi Fred McDowell play the slide, I was just mesmerized. I had to figure out how to play it myself."

Swingle quickly realized she wasn't going to be Bonnie Raitt, but she soon found her own way, trying alternate tunings and realizing—with the right set-up—she could slide whole chords instead of notes. Suddenly, she was tapping into a whole new stream of songwriting.

"'Monkey Tongue' [uses] a funky D ending with a top note in F which has a real creepy sound, then I have another tuning that I use for 'Brainwash.' It's a low, low C tuning, probably about as low as a guitar can handle," she says. "The only guitar I've found that's been able to keep that chord is a little el-cheapo Flying V."

Interesting, especially since the same great blues ghost of Mississippi Fred McDowell that led Swingle back to blues guitar and trying out Flying Vs was the reason she was stuck in the alligator-inhabited Sardis in the first place. She was waiting on Jimbo Mathus, the former Squirrel Nut Zipper who now runs a studio in Como, Miss., the longtime home of Mississippi Fred. The electrical system in his studio broke just before they arrived, so they ended up waiting for him to arrive with a master plan at the Sardis. When he came, that's exactly what he had.

"He steps out of his van wearing a fedora hat with a feather in it, cowboy boots and a western shirt. And you know he's got that gold tooth up front," says Swingle. Yep Roc founder Tor Hansen was along for the trip. "Tor says, 'Jimbo, so, what's the plan?' And Jimbo looked at me, kind of winked and said, 'I believe we're going to cut a record.'"

They ended up recording at the old Money Shot (now called Blackwing) studios, where many of Swingle's Fat Possum heroes like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough once recorded.

Finally, Swingle and her Mississippi past had come full circle. And she had the alligator sighting to prove it.

Swingle stories

Moaners songs come with good stories. Melissa Swingle shares the inner-workings of some of the best tracks from Blackwing Yalobusha.

On "Brainwash," which brings back the edge of "Terrier" from their last album, Dark Snack, and begins with the cry "No more dicks in biker bars":

"A couple years ago we played this totally redneck biker bar off Highway 54. I thought it would be a fun, different experience for us to play a biker rally. But we get there and play only to find it's mainly middle-aged bikers hopped up on Viagra. And after that gig and all the men coming up to us and touching us where we don't want to be touched, we decided to write an angry song about being vi-aggravated."

On "Dreamin' About Flyin'," one of the record's true experiments:

"One night I was recording band practice and Laura was playing this bass riff. I was like, 'That's good, I like that.' She kept it going and looped it, and started playing drums to it. It was the first time ever I kind of had stream of consciousness singing. More like jazz in a way than my original approach where I would write out lyrics and set them into a song. More of a soaring above with the lyrics as opposed to making the melody work."

On "Shrew," in which Swingle announces, "No fear, no envy, no meanness is our mantra":

"It's actually an old Irish pub saying. Pubs in the country, a lot of times, they'll paint slogans above the door, and I've heard that's a common one. Women and men can be catty and negative, and dwell on negativity. I feel if you aren't fearful, envious or mean back, either they'll figure it out or they'll just leave you alone."

On "Blackwing," which ties everything together with a show-stopping bow:

"[It's] almost cinematic. I could see it in a movie, the scene where the bank robber finally goes down and the dust settles."

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