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The Deadly Snakes
In The Red

If you're long past the age when surprises mean Christmas presents and trips to the circus, the idea of a solid rock band turning all psyche-Waits-Cash eclectic may not appeal. Still, on Porcella, Toronto's Deadly Snakes move in so many unexpected directions, and so well, that you might start looking forward to the mail again. This is the kind of album that gets you excited about the future, because you never know what could happen next.

Porcella starts with the Man-in-Black chug and moan of "Debt Collector," with Age of Danger's deep, gothic pipes battling blurts of sax and barroom pianos for supremacy. The track, like many on the album, has a certain propulsive joy, a dark celebratory feel that is completely at odds with its lyrics. The words are threatening, the song's a minor-chord party, the murmured "oooh-oohs" warn you off, while the fiery "House of the Rising Sun" organ solo compels you to stay for another drink. So far, the Deadly Snakes have not strayed far from their blues-rock roots, but with "200 Nautical Miles" we hear the first hint of a departure. It comes in the form of plucked violin arpeggios and vertiginous sawed strings — a veritable chamber orchestra, and normally a very bad sign. Yet while bad strings sweeten and sentimentalize, these add only tension. They add a shadowy counterpoint to this inscrutable sea shanty, ricocheting off such sardonic lines as, "I'm stealing what belongs to me/ And all the flies and all the fleas, all laugh to me as company."

Two songs here bear the unmistakable imprint of sometime Deadly Snakes collaborator Greg Cartwright. The Reigning Sound-ish "Sissy Blues" could be an outtake from Too Much Guitars, its chaotic instrumental break the very essence of blue garage sound. Later "Oh Lord, My Heart" blends Sun and Stax and Motown in a stop-step rhythm that is as old as rock 'n' roll itself and maybe older. Yet there is odder stuff on hand here that has more Waits or Beefheart to it than Oblivians. "High Prices Going Down" is an eccentric waltz, where rough blues vocals collide with a rinky-dink xylophone beat. The junkyard percussion of "Work" is as ramshackle and art-damaged as anything on Rain Dogs, as it slaps against futility-underlining words like "The roof of your house is the bottom of the sky/ But the house that you built sits in front of the one behind it/ Why build another one?"

Most albums have core tracks — representing a band's central style — and outliers, and it is usually the core tracks that sound the best. The Deadly Snakes' output on Porcella is so diverse that you very nearly can't decide what's core, and however you define it, the best track clearly lies outside the center. That track is "Gore Veil," an acoustic, 1960s-psyche-leaning song that puts tambourine and recorder notes behind an image-laden search for the meaning of life. "On the edge of a knife/ Is a calm simplicity/ In the storm and the strife/ There's a moment's clarity/ When the quivering fraility/ Now is all that's left of me." The melody is light as air and loosely knit, buoyed at the breaks with trumpet fanfares, yet never weighed down. Think "She's a Rainbow." Think Donovan. Think Brian Jonestown Massacre. Do not, on any account, think garage rock, because that is not what the Deadly Snakes are doing here.

After "Gore Veil" there is a long string of more overtly blues-rock tracks, tinged with Stax brass on "So Young + So Cruel," laced with slide guitar on "Let It All Go," and touched with droning psyche on "I Heard a Voice." There's another bout of brass-band exuberance in "By Morning I'm Gone," and a hint of Elvis Costello's "Mystery Dance" in the beginning solo of "The Banquet."

The CD closes with "The Bird in the Hand (Is Worthless)," linked in feel and tempo to "Gore Veil" and perhaps hinting at why the band has ranged so far. "Some things are cast off and some things are kept/ A pocket of silver/ A lover's caress/ A bird in the hand is worth...less," sings Danger, and you get the sense that wherever he's standing, whatever's doing, there's something more interesting that's caught his eye just over the next hill.

by Jennifer Kelly

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