The Old Haunts scare me. That's good.
Tradition dictates that music that unsettles me is worthwhile. (Exceptions: Slipknot, Insane Clown Posse, Amy Grant.) When I was in fifth grade, a savvy older friend lent me Never Mind the Bollocks.... I was frightened to play it, because I'd heard such playground horror stories about punk bands—they slashed themselves with broken bottles!—that I thought my ears would start gushing blood the minute the needle hit the groove. They didn't, and I learned a valuable lesson: That which frightens me often kicks ass.
A few years later, I discovered the Gun Club. That group really made me nervous, because they purportedly combined punk rock with the blues. The blues was music pioneered by downtrodden black people—a class completely alien to me, in the carefully manicured suburbs. And, of course, the unfamiliar should be feared. But "Sex Beat" shook me vigorously like a rag doll, and I was smitten. I won't lie and say I immediately purchased every Howlin' Wolf and Blind Lemon Jefferson LP I could lay my hands on, but my tastes had been expanded further, simply by once more lending my ears to sounds from which my instincts whispered, timidly, "Turn away, turn away."
Recently, I received Fuel on Fire, the second album from Olympia, Washington, trio the Old Haunts. The enclosed press release likened their music to 16 Horsepower and... the Gun Club. The latter made me nervous. Not because I'm still frightened by Jeffrey Lee Pierce and company. Quite the opposite. I worried no contemporary band was capable of making such a fearsome racket, while still filling me with excitement and—dare I say it?—joy. I surveyed the disc's song titles: "Death on the Sickbed," "Culture of Prey," "Salvage Purity." Promising.
Fuel on Fire lives up to that promise. When singer-guitarist Craig Extine really gets going, he positively wails. And not like some gay-disco diva at a Pride beer garden "wails"; I mean moaning and howling like a condemned soul in H-E-L-L. Even in softer moments, Extine boasts the wounded tone of a man who has never known sunlight: "I have seen/This heavenly scene/Where I have been/But I am certain/That I'll never/See this place again" ("Paradise").
The other band members augment the pervasive mood of angst, despair, and turmoil. On "Wasted Day," Scott Seckington continually sneaks chromatic notes into his bass riffs, so the low end keeps slip-sliding this way and that. The track lurches to and fro like a vessel on a stormy sea, so what does Seckington do next? Plunk down at the piano and unfurl the sort of sprawling instrumental interlude one might expect from Bad Seeds keyboard demon Mick Harvey. And drummer Curtis James pummels his instrument with the furor of a man who has found his kit riveted to the floor, and is determined to loose it from these moorings. Scary. And fun.
The Old Haunts are coming back to Seattle again in July. I anticipate their visit with dread.