Whipsaws – One up on the Lower 48
The Whipsaws may be the most popular bar band in Alaska. Certainly they have logged the most miles across the tundra, with the deepest repertoire of original music, routinely playing four-hour gigs in the live-music-starved watering holes of the hinterlands. In the process, they’ve engaged a broad array of Alaska’s more colorful characters, several of whom turned up on their 2005 release, Ten Day Bender.
A mostly country-sounding affair, Bender was a collection of, er, Alaskana. Hugely popular with the locals, it also spent six months on the Americana radio charts. The band’s growing popularity inspired both a commitment to turn their lives to music full-time, and a powerfully expressive shift to the more rockin’ heart of things. A brief U.S. tour early this year, in connection with their stint backing up Tim Easton at South By Southwest, confirmed that a future awaited them outside their home state. The new disc 60 Watt Avenue is their launchpad.
When the band decided to give up their day jobs, their bassist bowed out, but his replacement opened new horizons. Lead singer and songwriter Evan Phillips explains, “Our new bass player [Ivan Molesky] added a really rocking element [that] allowed us to do things we couldn’t do before. So I was feeling really inspired because Ivan joined the band, and feeling angry that it’s such a struggle to keep a band together. With all these feelings I was having, I ended up writing the bulk of the record in, like, a couple weeks.”
As the band pulled together the arrangements, they began to feel that, like Bender and Alaska, 60 Watt Avenue seemed to have a theme, this time rooted in their common enthusiasm for Neil Young. “We all have different backgrounds,” guitarist Aaron Benolkin says of the band members’ prior projects in blues, jazz, alt-country and rock, “but we all overlap right there. Neil Young is definitely an inspiration to all of us — just his outlook on it, and how he can go from an album like Harvest to Tonight’s The Night and cover those grounds.”
60 Watt Avenue may rock things up, but it doesn’t leave Alaska’s wild frontier behind. “Bar Scar”, its fiercest, most throttle-neck macho track (think black leather pants, long hair and sweat flying under stage lights), plays like a knife fight. “The song actually was inspired by a bar fight at one of our shows,” Phillips says, “so it’s kind of an intense, really loud song, but the lyrics are actually kind of about a person that’s in a difficult relationship that’s pissed off at the person. I’m not gonna say if that’s a true story or not.”
“High Tide” could be out of the Backsliders’ catalog except for the almost Dylanesque phrasing in spots, but it’s about a notorious bar in Seward, Alaska, that’s an island of intense heat surrounded by about seven glaciers. The Pit Bar, a frequent host to the Whipsaws, stays open until 5 a.m., just until “all the troubles that they threw overboard came back with the high tide.”
The album’s most compelling character study was inspired a little farther afield, when the band played Seattle on its first tour involving airfare. “Lonesome Joe”, which could almost be a Whiskeytown cover, is an inspiring story of an old biker and fisherman who’s seen it all and remains standing. “That song means a lot to me because I wrote the whole song coming home from Seattle on the plane and it just totally worked,” Phillips says. “I felt like I really got what this guy was all about. To me it’s a very heartfelt and poignant song.”
There is love on the record, but it’s difficult, its object generally more enamored of altered states. A tender-hearted exception is one of two entries by drummer and guitarist James Dommek Jr., “Stick Around”, a Gram Parsons-inflected acoustic charmer.
Phillips acknowledges that the current turmoil in the music business doesn’t favor the band’s timing, but he’s optimistic. “There are no other bands up here who work as hard and write as much original music,” he says. “I think that’s something that sets our band apart. We work our asses off.”