"We've always been weirdly obsessed with our town," says Pearls and Brass drummer Josh Martin. "I have no idea why."
The town of which he speaks is Nazareth, Pennsylvania, population 6,023. Tucked against the Jersey border, Nazareth is home to the Martin guitar factory, foremost makers of acoustic six-strings, and to Nazareth Speedway, where patriots slurp beer and watch cars go in circles.
"I've been racking my brain lately to come up with a good reason why we like it," Martin continues. "I know, growing up there, you learn Nazareth is Biblical, y'know, birthplace of Christ. So you wanna find out why, why is this town Nazareth? But there are really a lot of bizarre and strange things about the place."
For their Drag City debut, the young trio (Martin; Randy Huth, guitar/vocals; Joel Winter, bass) paid homage to their hometown, branding the disc "Nazareth Straight Bourbon Sounds" and titling it The Indian Tower, after a colonial watchtower/Native-American graveyard perched on the outskirts of Nazareth. Through a mountain of thick riffs and honeyed vocals, Pearls and Brass don't so much serenade the town's living as they try to summon its dead. Rumbling open with a Kyuss-style guitar and drum thunderclap, the disc finds Huth singing of the restless spirits: "The tower, the passage, of many spirits/Oh, they may not be here, but they know/In the hills of Nazariah."
And though it was intended as a final resting place for native brethren, the tower, according to Martin, is primarily known as a place of vandalism and drug use.
"I have very vivid memories of my friend and I going up there and there'd just be syringes lying about," he recalls. "Later, when we got older, we'd go up there to drink beer and smoke pot, make out with girls. But over time it became more of a sanctuary to us, a place where you'd go and collect your thoughts."
The real-life Indian Tower is even featured on the album's cover photo through a calligraphic hatching of branches and leaves; the omnipotent stone monolith casts a watchful glare over the entire album. And the concept of death permeates lyrically, as well. On "The Face of God," Huth sings of the moments right before a woman's death ("Burning face of God/Please come and lead her home"). Later on "Beneath the Earth," he sings of "voices of the dead," lest we forget the funereal chants filling the disc's opening 30 seconds.
"It really worked out that the songs all sort of took on this death theme and that we had this place (the Indian Tower) that had become such a presence on the record," says Martin.
It may seem like Pearls and Brass are laying a heavy trip on you; the music is dense, meditative, and the lyrics certainly aren't puffy. However, it never dips into the excessive gloom-and-doom that befalls many young, heavier acts. Rather, P&B's power bubbles right under the music's surface, right to the brink of eruption, teetering there. It's a similar balancing act that made bluesmen Robert Johnson's and Skip James's performances so atmospherically intense (which Huth calls to mind on his two impressive solo acoustic outings, "Away the Mirrors" and "I Learn the Hard Way").
Though they've immersed themselves in the blues, P&B's stacking of Sabbath/Cream chords should place the trio in the stoner-rock bloodline. However, a quick rundown of their contemporaries (Queens of the Stone Age, Masters of Reality, Cactus) is returned with a genuine, "Honestly, we've never listened to the stoner-rock stuff." Rather, it seems they leaped from off your parents' turntable circa 1975 and landed in today, absorbing no influences from the ensuing decades.
But beyond their power-trio prowess, Pearls and Brass also conjure the mood of their geography. The Indian Tower is steeped in the eerie chill of Pennsylvania in the fall—all dead leaves, bitter winds and gray skies. It's this ghostly aura that remains most intriguing. And from the sound of it, one senses that Nazareth's haunting population far outweighs that of its living.
"I'm not quite sure," says Martin. "I know there is a live Wicca practice in Nazareth, and people have been practicing their rituals in the woods for years. I mean... I don't know for sure, but I have a peculiar feeling something funny is going on there."