Joy indeed to have the third album from the oddly named and even odder sounding Canadian outfit Petunia & The Vipers as Blabber’n’Smoke was somewhat enamoured of the two previous releases which we reviewed here and here. Dead Bird On The Highway sees Petunia continuing to wander into the more esoteric byways of popular music while still retaining the core mixture of Western Swing, Blues and Rockabilly which are the foundations of his sound. Although there is yodelling to be found there are songs by Otis Blackwell, Ike Turner and a stunning version of Little Willie John’s I’m Shakin’ along with several numbers that have African roots. All in all a very eclectic mix but if you’ve been following Petunia’s career this should come as no surprise.
Petunia’s reedy vocals in themselves are a joy to listen to as he croons, scats and yodels with a zest that is at times exhausting while The Vipers can lay down a vampish beat, rock like hell and kick the gong around as easily as you switch car gears. At times they do this within the space of a song as on Gonna Put On My Suit where they switch from a bluesy opening into tom tom fuelled guitar blizzards and then tumble into a jazzy Slim and Slam interlude which is then interrupted by pedal steel coming down the tracks. On paper, this seems like a train wreck but it’s an exhilarating ride, the twists and turns coming so fast that by the end the listener is dizzy but satisfied.
The opening song, Blue Yodel Blues, a tremendous mash up of western swing and Jimmy Rogers doesn’t prepare the listener for what’s to come as it’s one of the most straightforward numbers here, straightforward that is for Petunia. As they proved when they played here back in 2013 The Vipers are a deadly force when it comes to delivering hi octane rock, rhythm and blues and they do so here on several occasions. Oh What A Wonderful Time, an Otis Blackwell number finds the band in a viperish mood, all Cotton Club and Cab Calloway swing as Petunia comes across all lascivious, My heart Cries Out For You skitters along like a mutant Buddy Holly number while Bloom, Bloom, Bloom is like Tav Falco with a nervous tic. Throughout the album Petunia takes on familiar styles and mutates them, Chained is a frantic dash that resembles a Merrie Melodies cartoon soundtrack that marries Eastern melodies and hard boiled gangster film noir grit and Put Yourself On The Market (AKA Why Don’t You Do Right or Weed Smoker’s Dream) out Waits Tom Waits with its junkyard jackhammer blues. We reach the outer limits on the surf guitar fuelled Asaw Fofor, a cover of a Ghanaian song from the sixties by Ignace de Souza which finds Petunia switching between English and Swahili over a tremendous groove and on the crowning achievement here, the spooky netherworld of Death Himself. Shimmers of guitar and a rain slicked noirish sheen glower over a slow beat that breathes menace, a shadow in the dark stalking the living. Petunia casts himself as a torch singer, lapsing into French in a danse macabre although he can’t help himself from comparing the man with the scythe to a lumberjack, the Canadian in him coming out I suppose. In any case it’s shivering in its cold beauty.
While it’s not your normal country folk rock blues fodder Dead Bird On The Highway is firmly rooted in supremely listenable roots music as it challenges and provokes the listener to delve and explore but best of all it’s huge fun.