Portland, Oregon-based outfit Sassparilla has been referred to as
indie-roots, punk-Americana, and punk-roots. Though it is the subtleties
and folk-pop leanings of their latest, The Darndest Thing, that find this
five-piece band slowing things down a bit - and growing up musically.
Comprised of Kevin "Gus" Blackwell (vocals, cigar box guitar, national
resonator guitar), the father and son combo of Ross "Dagger" Macdonald
(harmonica) and Colin "Sweet Pea" Macdonald (washtub bass), Naima (vocals,
accordian, washboard), and Justin Burkhart (drums), Sassparilla offers one
of the most entertaining, sweaty live shows in the Pacific Northwest.
Complete with dancing, sing-along numbers, and plenty of good times. And
now, with The Darndest Thing, they deliver a record that gives fans a new
side of the band, centered on the structure of the song and the lyrics
more so than the party groove and liveliness of their earlier recordings.
Their debut, 2007's Debilitated Constitution, delivered raw and edgy
country-blues mixed with ragtime traditions, while 2008's follow-up Rumpus
found the band creating punk-infused, blood-jug holler music. In 2010 the
band released Ramshackle, praised by critics and fans alike as "insurgent
blues," an unruly concoction of country-blues and punk sensibilities.
Trading in influences such as Old Crow Medicine Show, The Black Keys, Tom
Waits, R.L. Burnside, and The Devil Makes Three for Grant Lee Phillips and
Joe Henry with The Darndest Thing, the band's latest offering is a
testament to their diversity and continued growth as a band.
"Every record we've done is a little different than the record before it,"
comments Blackwell, the band's primary songwriter. "They're all metaphors
for what's happening in my life. So, the early records were good-time
roots-punk records. Then death happened, a friend passed away, and other
life stuff happened. I had to face the reality that I'm an adult now.
Stuff I wasn't used to. And, so The Darndest Thing reflects that."
While writing The Darndest Thing, a friend of Blackwell's passed on, while
Blackwell and the other band members were already realizing that life
comes at you fast and you never know what to expect. Several changes
within the bands' personal lives later, and a record was born, different
from their others, but still equally Sassparilla to the core.
And when it came time to title the album, the perfect title presented
itself at a show in Seattle: "We were doing this show and my friend Chet
Lyster was playing guitar in the band before us, Casey Neill and the
Norway Rats. Their sound was immaculate, but when we went up to do our
set the whole thing fell apart and was a complete mess," Blackwell
recalls. "After the show, Chet and I were talking about it and he
deadpans, 'It was the darndest thing!'. It instantly became part of our
vernacular, and then was an obvious choice for the album title."
Lyster who spent years recording and touring with Lucinda Williams, and is
currently a recording and touring member of Eels, would go on to record,
produce, and play on The Darndest Thing.
"While making the record, a friend met a fatal end, and other stuff was
going on in my life, and the band members' lives. So, any time something
would happen, whether it was good or bad, we'd just say, 'it's the
darndest thing.' And that is how the title came about," Blackwell says.
Many factors contributed to the growth and maturity of The Darndest Thing,
including the significant contributions of Chet Lyster.
"This is the first time we've worked with a producer," explains Blackwell.
"We did a lot of pre-production on this like we've never done before on
previous records. We decided from the beginning to make this record the
way it is. We were very thoughtful throughout the pre-production and
Blackwell likens the growth to seeing your children grow up.
"I know people have used this metaphor before, but I feel like my songs
are growing up. It's like my songs are adults now, learning to manage
money and all of that," he says with a chuckle.
Eight songs, clocking in at thirty-five minutes, The Darndest Thing is
filler-free, succinct enough to keep the listeners' attention throughout,
even for those that have never heard the band before, but meaty enough to
not leave you feeling empty and cheated.
"It's the length of some full-length," Blackwell says without hesitation.
"We just didn't want to cram filler on it or put more tracks on it just to
put more tracks on, especially in this MP3, 99 cent attention span
While previous records have jumped around from genre to genre, The
Darndest Thing finds the songs working together, each telling a story,
while the music stays consistent. It's their first record to truly be an
album, not just a collection of fun-time, entertaining live favorites to
get the crowd moving.
Not only is the music consistent, there is a lyrical theme throughout the
record, each song tied together by tales of strange people and their crazy
lives, drinking, relationships, and stories of how the down-trodden get
"Most of my lyrics come together from overhearing people at bars, on the
street, at restaurants," says Blackwell. "The song 'Fumes' is about a guy
that I know from the bars and on the streets around here, and the life I
imagine he leads by hearing his conversations, and talking to him, when I
run into him. He's an interesting character, like all the people I meet
and write songs about. But he really sticks out in my mind every time I
see him, so I wrote the song about him."
When discussing how he feels about writing a more cohesive record,
Blackwell says that he is more proud of this record than any record prior,
mainly because of the composition behind the record.
"Every record is so different I can't compare them. I feel like I get
bored, so I write a bunch of different styles," explains Blackwell. "I've
worried though, in the past, that we've been so scattered. We meld a
whole bunch of genres, including punk, Americana, waltz, two-step, indie,
folk, all of it. So this time I didn't want to be so obvious about
melding all these genres, I wanted to be subtler. In the past, every
record we've made has been an interpretation of multiple genres. With The
Darndest Thing, I just wanted it to be an interpretation of one genre,
without losing what makes Sassparilla unique. And, I feel we accomplished
A big departure for the band is album opener "New Love," the poppiest song
the band has ever written. A happy, up-tempo song, it instantly denotes
that something different is happening with Sassparilla on this release.
Praising engineer/producer Chet Lyster, Blackwell makes sure to give
credit where credit is due for The Darndest Thing, saying, "Chet comes
with all the bells and whistles. The guy is a genius. He's a great
producer who knows not just his own instrument, which is the guitar, but
other instruments as well. He can direct traffic. It really helped The
Darndest Thing come together, come alive."
The band's goals with this record are modest. Known for being a live act,
they hope to change things with this release. Proving to listeners that
they're capable of making a record that is strong on its own, while still
providing a live show that is worth your hard-earned entertainment dollar
and will give you a memorable night out.
"You wear two hats in a band, live shows and recorded product," comments
Blackwell. "I like the idea of making a beautiful record. Then making a
show people can dance to. That, to me, is what Sassparilla is all about.
I feel we accomplished that. We made a record that is strong, something
my peers can respect. We made a beautiful record, not just a record that
was over-the top performance wise, like we've done in the past."