who: The Critters and John Wilkes Boothe and the Black Toothe, with Doc Aquatic
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, Nov. 29 ($5. thegreyeagle.com)
If one were looking for two Asheville acts that lined up stylistically for collaboration, The Critters and John Wilkes Boothe and the Black Toothe would be an unlikely selection. The former is an aggressively psychedelic garage outfit with Sloan-approximate hooks and a roughshod sense of rock ‘n’ roll energy. They’re less about precision than than joyous momentum, often seeming close to careening out of control, though they always manage to hold on. The Toothe is a trio that brings order to normally chaotic music, tightening elements of macabre freak folk into polished musings that peel back the prestige of Southern heritage to uncover murder and menace.
Despite these differences, the two outfits are well-matched on their new split EP, a six-song offering that collects two originals and one cover from each. The covers find each group re-working one of the other’s songs, gleaning additional excitement from the bands’ compelling contrasts.
“I think it’s almost more interesting how dissimilar our bands are. That makes this kind of an interesting collaboration,” says Critters guitarist Tom Peters. He and the majority of his band- and split-mates are gathered up in the home of the Black Toothe’s Paul Blackwell, where they recorded their new release. “The most obvious differences are no electric guitars, no live rock drum kit with the Toothe. So that’s what made covering each other’s songs so interesting to me.”
Lined up in front a computer for a Skype interview, the groups’ members are clearly close, sharing frequent jokes and finishing each other’s thoughts during responses that are both charming and convoluted. Their familiarity can be traced back about three years to when a few members attended classes together at UNC-Asheville. Blackwell recorded an early iteration of The Critters at the time. Since then the groups have remained close, sharing occasional bills and more frequent beers. Earlier this year, the Toothe approached their friends with the idea for a split EP. Critters guitarist Harry Harrison says they were thrilled with the concept.
“I’d never even heard of a split EP until you guys suggested it,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘That’s a great idea! You guys are geniuses!’”
The outfits began work in May, recording with Blackwell over the summer and finishing the final touches in early November. Working together provided an accepting environment that made them comfortable to work through songs outside their comfort zones. “Eventually Die, Marie” finds The Critters jangling through perky folk-pop that recalls The Byrds when they covered Bob Dylan. “Blood on the Wind” sees the Toothe casting off their prettier elements and indulging in an oppressive dirge powered by a down-and-dirty bass line and brightened by intricate blues picking.
“It just made us more excited about it because we already were comfortable around each other as people, and then we already liked each other’s music,” says the Black Toothe’s Ben Melton. “It came pretty naturally.”
“It’s been great because Paul’s been recording everything in his house,” adds Peters. “It’s just really comfortable coming to record and hang out here, having the dudes from the Toothe hanging around while we’re doing it.”
Exploring unusual originals is one thing, but the covers allowed each outfit the opportunity to merge their aesthetic with that of the other.
The Critters tackle “Deep Winedark,” a musically bright entry in the Toothe’s repertoire thanks to its tangled acoustic licks and infectious kick drum-and-tambourine rhythm, a winning contrast with the song’s dark tale of disputed paternity. The Critters charge it up with chugging riffs and cutting fills, adding manic rock ‘n’ roll energy without losing the bittersweet tension that makes the original work.
The Toothe chose “Gee Golly” for its cover. The relentless rocker is among the more propulsive Critters numbers, zooming forward with resplendent riffs during the verses and pausing for a refrain about a girl who “went rock ‘n’ roll and forgot me.” The normally neat Toothe mimic The Critters’ velocity in a ragged acoustic barnstormer that displays an unexpected knack for chaos.
“We tried to make it sound like us,” Blackwell says. “We tend to obsess over details in a way that The Critters don’t. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just more about the pure expression of it, of a song or a sound. We do really obsess over details, and we tried to balance that with the rock ‘n’ roll spirit that The Critters gush.”
“They took our song and refined it into something that moved me to tears personally,” Harrison adds. “And we took their song and slapped it the f--k up.”
Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.