“Who will sing these working blues?” Ike Reilly asks at the start of his new album, Because the Angels.
In a sense, this late-blooming Midwestern bard has been doing just that since his audacious 2001 debut, Salesmen and Racists, which introduced an explosively original voice pushing against the confines of classic sounds. From bent, Dylanesque blues to Clash-inspired rock and motor-mouthed rap, the music Reilly has made with his band, the Ike Reilly Assassination, has been funny and profane, righteous and raging, provocative and occasionally profound. And as with much great work that falls under the broad banner of rock, it has also often exuded a certain class consciousness.
With Because the Angels, Reilly continues to ooze the flair and charisma of a streetwise poet while confronting a dystopian world in which ordinary folks are constantly being let down and forced to watch their hopes and dreams slip away. At the heart of it all, though — heart being the operative word — remains a defiant urge for transcendence.
In “The Muhammad Ali Museum,” one of three numbers that find the band taking a new turn into country, the downtrodden singer visits the shrine to the champ in Louisville, Kentucky, “looking for inspiration.” But there is no shortage of inspiration on Because the Angels. The Ike Reilly Assassination, even as it expands its musical palette, has never sounded better, bringing a new level of warmth and expressiveness that Reilly matches with his singing and writing.
“Little Messiahs,” which gives the album its title, takes aim at venal politicians who fail those who need them most: the poor and the working stiffs. “Someday Tonight” and the country-inflected “The Failure of St. Michael” highlight Reilly’s storytelling skills as they point up the inadequacy and hypocrisy of organized religion. The furiously rocking “Ashes to Ashes” reminds us that we’re all ending up in the same place, while “F— the Good Old Days,” a gospel-inflected rocker, dismisses those who romanticize the past. And “Laura,” a flat-out honky-tonker with pedal steel, shows how the poison of racism can render physical beauty not even skin deep.
“Trick of the Light,” with its big, horn-stoked sound and added vocals by Reilly’s three sons, sounds almost incongruously celebratory (though, like most of his songs, it’s catchy as hell), considering it’s about family dysfunction and false hope. (“You think you see help coming …”) There’s no such seeming disconnect on “Healing Side of the Night,” a rocker that offers the kind of cathartic release you’d expect from the title.
Reilly ends the 10-song set with the seven-minute “Racquel Blue.” It’s a tale of longing and heartbreak that builds its evocative power more through mood and atmosphere than a lot of narrative details. But at its core, even if it’s tinged with resignation, is a spirit of resilience, the kind that those with the working blues use to endure: “You do what you gotta do.”