Photo by Ignacio Catral.
I have heard enough covers of “Crossroads” to know what passes for “the blues” these days – and it tends to be cringe-inducing. So I was a bit apprehensive upon listening to The Violet Hour, a self-described “blues-infused” rock band from Milwaukee. Fortunately, the band’s debut album, Not Haunted, quickly disproved my (admittedly, pretty fuzzy) anxieties about the concept of blues rock, and that’s because it’s not really blues rock at all. With a digest of influences that includes power pop, punk, classic rock and, yes, blues, Not Haunted is an all-encompassing half-hour of rock that refuses to fit squarely within one genre.
Sure, there’s one no-nonsense blues stomp (“Leave Me Alone”) and a throwaway country toe-tapper (“Gone At 31”), but for each of those, there are three other songs full of surprises, from the skittering rhythms of “Deep Roots Blues” to the urgent, industrial synth stabs of “Head vs. Heart.”
A lot of the “bluesiness” on Not Haunted can be attributed to lead singer Karen Muehlbauer, whose thick, velvety vocals call to mind Adele or Ella Fitzgerald, and will likely be the first thing you notice. While many of the songs sound like something that might emanate from a neighbor’s garage, Muehlbauer’s voice (not to mention her sparse but essential keyboard playing) elevates them to a sexier, more mysterious world.
Her vocals are certainly a focal point, but not at the expense of the other instruments. Guitarist Joel Martin’s pinwheeling licks light up opener “Elephant Skin” and steal the show on the Rolling Stones-y “Dusk.” Meanwhile, the pulsing rhythm section of Ignacio Catral and Keith Bauer brings an electrifying grooviness to “Deep Roots Blues” and closer “Skeletons.”
When Not Haunted abandons the whiplash guitar work and chiseled grooves that make its first four tracks memorable, things start to feel a little thin. “Gone At 31,” a whimsical country hop, blows by as aimlessly as a tumbleweed, and “Summer Trip/Midwest Cities” yearns too politely for a road trip. With some of latter half trimmed off, Not Haunted could have made for a fierce debut EP. But even with a few hiccups intact, it packs a full-length wallop that a bar-band covering “Crossroads” could never hope to achieve.