Honest Grit ‘n Polish

Black Dog (Anelemma Records)

Nick Reifsteck & The Serotones

By Tim Roberts

Nick Reifstech & The Serotones - Black Dog

The late writer John Gardner (author of Grendel and Nickel Mountain, not the one who churned out new, entertaining-but-photocopy-plotted James Bond novels throughout 80s and 90s) proclaimed that while authors can use a crateload of tools to construct a story, the tools are ultimately useless and their efforts wasted if they cheat their readers. Authors must be needle-in-the-eye honest about what they say and not engage in mere textual theatrics: e.g., plot sacrificed to symbolism, sugary sentiment used in place of real feeling, a dozen points of view sacrificed to solid structure. Put another way, authors need to keep it real (and Les McCann would answer gruffly, "Compared to what?")

Apply that same requirement to creating music. If the results were considered criminal offenses, about 90% of the past decade's Grammy winners would be serving time.

Very few wouldn't. Especially Nick Reifsteck. Black Dog might even be considered his "Get Out of Jail Free" card.

Reifsteck, another Louisville Music veteran (formerly of Jil Thorp and the Beat Boys, One Red Romeo, and others), has returned home refreshed and ready. He and his band the Serotones bring us Black Dog, 10 tracks of gritty blues with a country swing, or folk with the drive of pop (take your pick). Joining Reifsteck are Fred Lipsey on bass, vocals, and acoustic guitar, Charlie Stevenson on drums, Alice Stevenson on vocals, and Will Cary on vocals and harmonica.

The songs are short, poignant, and pointed. Through it all is Reifsteck's voice, an expressive, soaring tenor that cuts through each selection cleaner than a fresh scalpel. His vocal performance matches the lyrical and musical credibility contained in his songs. In them he takes on personas of different types of lovers, whether it's as the soon-to-be-jilted lover in "You're Gonna Miss Me," the disbelieving one in "Likely Story," the regretful one in "Two Hearts, or the eternally grateful one in "Madge." The latter is a warm, acoustic piece with an amazingly deceptive title that should replace "There Is Love" or any overwrought selection from The Phantom of the Opera as the standard music at weddings.

Midway through Black Dog is "Shambles," the finest track musically and lyrically. Sung from a similar point of view as the nameless first-person ghost in "Long Black Veil" (or, cinematically, like the wistful, deceased narrator Lester Burnham in American Beauty), "Shambles" tells of a man with no hope choosing the means of his demise with either "a bag, a needle, a bottle, and a gun / I was trying to kill my pain." His destiny is to be a shell of a man, "a sorry ghost in chains." There's a hint at redemption in the song's bridge, where he declares that if he can "break these cables holding me down / Then I could make that train and turn it around." The forceful pop rhythm behind the piece belies its outcome. It is by no means a positive song.

Reifsteck and the Serotones could have taken the cheap way out of a song like "Shambles" (or the others on the recording) and turned it into a cinchy hit that could be safe enough to play at youth retreats while its lyrics were printed, bound, and sold as gift books. But that would diminish the growl of Black Dog.

And it would be cheating.