Ithica Gin – Sonic & tonic
At first glance, the front cover of Ithica Gin’s Alembic — the best strum-and-twang/sturm-und-drang debut I’ve heard so far this year — is a mystery. There’s no album title, no band name; just a picture of some hard-to-identify object.
“That’s my grandfather’s last still. He died the day before it was destroyed,” explains Sloane Doggett, the band’s singer, songwriter and guitarist. “The picture shows the aftermath of the revenuers. He died with the sugar in it and everything.”
(For the record, Ithica Gin is not a brand of rotgut, but rather an homage to the street Doggett grew up on, Ithica Gin Road, which itself is a memorial to a now-extinct turn-of-the-century community that grew up around a cotton gin.)
Ithica Gin’s history, although not as worthy of a short story, is still pretty interesting. As a freshman at the University of Georgia in Athens, Doggett began writing songs and learning to play guitar. Meanwhile, back home in Carrollton, younger brother Wes and drummer friend Walt Entrekin were making noise in your basic talent-show-caliber cover band. When Sloane decided to leave school, the three started hanging out together, playing and writing. When they wanted to have some real fun, they’d play and write some more.
After the passing of many musical months (“It got to the point where we didn’t even have to think anymore” is Doggett’s description), came the time when serious bands figure they need to get something out there for folks to hear. Last year’s 7-inch release “Kentucky”, featuring two stutter-stepping rural rockers, was hatched in John Keane’s Athens studio, with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar producing and providing a touch of “extra guitar.”
Okay, there it is, the F word. Some artists spend their entire career trying to escape the shadow of their perceived influences, and Doggett is already dealing with that dilemma. Some reviewers have taken shots at Ithica Gin in this regard, harping on Farrar’s involvement in the single and claiming an Uncle Tupelo sonic similarity on a few tracks from Alembic. Doggett is doing his best to shrug it off, but you can tell it nags at him: “If we were a rip-off band or just jumped on a bandwagon, I don’t think Jay would have come down and worked with us,” he says. “It was out of character as it is.”
While there may be a certain early-UT feel to some of the faster and louder songs on Alembic, there’s also traces of Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt (check out “All in All”), not to mention some decidedly lesser-known folks — the bluegrass pickers and gospel singers who populated the Baptist-church-driven town where Doggett grew up. And “just maybe even a little Metallica,” Doggett adds with only half a laugh.
In any case, those who spend too much time preoccupied with the influences on Alembic are missing the deeper rewards of this truly homegrown album, recorded at the Doggett home on an eight-track portastudio. “All the songs are about psychological freedom,” Doggett says, and the one that sums this up best is “Satellite”. With its verses-as-questions structure and two wonderful centerpiece lines — “Memory comes ’round like a widow” and “Sorrow comes ’round like a shadow” — it’s a startling statement that hints at even greater things ahead for Ithica Gin.
Speaking of which, the band’s second full-length release (also planned for their own Red Dirt Records label) is already in the planning stages. It’s shaping up as a more acoustic affair featuring quite a bit of piano, an instrument Doggett has just taken up. “But still,” Doggett promises, “a rock record.”
Doggett is also a member of Freight Whaler, a whirlwind of a band in both a musical and an existential sense. Formed more or less as a time-killer by Whiskeytown’s Ryan Adams while most of the members of his primary band returned temporarily to the schoolhouse, Freight Whaler played together for less than a month — but they played hard. They opened for the Old 97’s and Scud Mountain Boys, appeared at the Honky-Tonkarama, in Chapel Hill, N.C., and made one hellacious car trip to New York City and back.
Nobody got rich — they made 20 bucks each for their one-night stand in the Big Apple — but they earned some great memories. A freak North Carolina storm snowed them in for three days of nothing but drinking, eating, presumably more drinking, and listening to the Scud Mountain Boys’ Massachusetts. And then there was the New York show, during which Adams unleashed one of his trademark yelps and fell backwards, scattering fellow Whiskeytowner Skillet Gilmore’s drum set and bringing the crowd to pin-drop silence. “That is THE Freight Whaler memory,” offers Doggett, and I can hear him smile over the phone.
Right now, Doggett isn’t able to speculate on the future of Freight Whaler (“You’d probably have to ask Ryan,” he says), nor does he particularly care to. He’s ready to get back on the road with a newly solidified Ithica Gin lineup that features bassist Chris Laney and ex-Whiskeytowner Nicholas Petti (a guest player on Alembic) on pedal steel, along with drummer-for-life Entrekin. Brother Wes is no longer a card-carrying member of Ithica Gin, but he’ll be opening many of the shows with an acoustic set.
There are upcoming shows in Atlanta and Athens, but foremost in Doggett’s mind is the one in his old stomping grounds of Carrollton. (In July, Doggett moved to — get this — Turkey Heaven Mountain, Alabama, though a fruitless search for this town in the Rand McNally at ND Headquarters makes us wonder if Doggett is pulling our turkey leg.)
The Carrollton homecoming gig is scheduled for the Corner Cafe, a coffee shop currently doubling as the town’s only night spot. “It’s hard to keep a bar open in a Baptist-controlled town,” Doggett laments. Sounds like a great first line for a song to me.