The title of Little Wretches’ new album, Red Beets & Horseradish, provides listeners with a glimpse into their creative thinking. Chief songwriter, singer, and guitarist Robert Andrew Wagner incorporates surprising variety into what is, at its core, a folk-rock album in the singer/songwriter vein. Hints of Rolling Stones-like blues rock occasionally peek out from the arrangements and his lyrics, more than anything else, illustrate how its still possible to call upon the pop music’s extensive lexicon in personal and inventive ways.
There’s a lot of bringing the traditional and personal together during this album. “Rise”, the album opener, is an excellent example of that. Backing vocalist Jack Erdie’s song has a strong gospel influence without ever sounding churchy or embracing religion; it’s capable of touching a spiritual nerve for listeners. You can hear it as a deeply secular song, as well, tied up in the world but determined to never be defeated by its machinations.
Red Beets & Horseradish occasionally slips over the line into rock and roll territory. One of the best forays in this vein arrives with “Palms & Crosses” and the vocals, including the song’s backing singers, seem to draw inspiration from the fiery guitar. Tackling this track at an up-tempo trajectory is a welcome shot in the arm, as well, that helps carry us into its next turn. Pairing the song with “Nothing Was Given to Me” is a particularly shrewd move given the song’s tone, its storytelling slant, and unorthodox vocals.
It hails from the “talking blues” or recitation style once popular in music of the 1950s-1960s. Songwriters typically reserved the style for “morality plays” in miniature, i.e. Hank Williams Sr.’s Luke the Drifter persona and associated songs, and the intent is the same here. The backing is minimal but important. Rosa Colucci’s lead vocals for “Winter’s Grace” provide Red Beets & Horseradish with a welcome change in vocal perspective, though her voice is far more bluesy.
Uncomprehending but righteous rage exists in the heart of “Tiger Pajamas” and bushwhacks listeners a verse in. It’s childhood utopia, at first, before he first lowers the boom during the song’s chorus. He layers further drama into the lyric from there on and it’s difficult to imagine few, if any, will hear its plaintive chorus and remain unaffected. “One Hundredth” mines traditional music for much of its material, but it’s invigorating to hear how thoroughly he claims the song as his own.
“Old Lillian’s Story” is cut from the same cloth as the earlier “Nothing Was Given to Me”, though the former is much more self-consciously a character sketch. These “songs” stand out, without question, but it’s a testament to the seamlessness of his writing that they don’t sound jarring in this context but, instead, an elaboration on Wagner’s songwriting talents. The melody opening “Duquesne” soon has the whole band fall in behind the guitar and we’re off with another of Wagner’s character studies. The simmering tension in the song will be appealing to many. It’s another example of the underplayed diversity of the album, but it’s a pleasure hearing an album where there’s close to something for everyone. Little Wretches are hitting a peak with their new album Red Beets & Horseradish.