If the Grateful Dead were forming today, they might consider a smaller line-up through which to launch their country-rock blues. The songs also might be shorter, with less jamming and improvisation. Old Riley and the Water’s Biting Through is one version of what that tight, modern Dead could sound like. Their debut EP does what all good EPs do; it gives you a strong sense of the band, and their sound, in just a few tracks.
The album kicks off with “Howlin’ for My Darlin’,” a Howlin’ Wolf cover (and the album’s only cover). Old Riley and the Water’s version bounces, but singer/guitarist Sean Riley does a great job tapping into Wolf’s raspy vocals. Together, the upbeat instrumentation and the more ragged singing create a nicely balanced track.
The originals from the New Orleans trio are just as strong, though. “Blues Walking” is built around a slide guitar riff and a 1950s melody, creating a song that’s sweet, sad, and simple, but also captivating. “Biting Through” is a simple blues that’s almost country. One can imagine the Dead taking it on, although Riley’s voice is deeper and bluesier than anyone from that band.
Other tracks have more of a contemporary swagger. “Try and Understand” rumbles with a muddiness that reads more modern than old fashioned. Riley’s voice desperately pops out of the mix, along with harmonica that sounds like a train whistle, the locomotive seemingly bearing down on him. “Power to Change,” the album’s final song, is a little funky, with a treble-y guitar riff playing over a disco-y bass groove. It’s reminiscent of Black Keys, not so much in sound, but in attitude. Where the Black Keys often pivot to soul detours, this is more of a funk digression.
Biting Through is a simple album: it’s solid bluesy-rock songs performed well. Riley’s voice and guitar drive the album but they don’t dominate it. Anyone looking for low-key blues that straddles the past and the present will enjoy their time with Old Riley and the Water.