You wouldn’t think the world needed another version of “St. James Infirmary” at this point, but the one that closes out Uncle Nef’s first full album isn’t like any you’ve heard before. It’s guitar-driven blues-rock, but steeped in a punkish White Stripes aesthetic, with a couple of distortion-heavy guitar solos, open space in the arrangement, close-miked drums, and an organ that pounds a single chord throughout. This setting gives the song new life while making it the most ominous it’s sounded in a long while.
True to their name, Uncle Nef is an uncle and a nephew: the former is celebrated drummer (and here singer) Shannon Powell, the latter is young guitar-slinger Darren Hoffman (some tracks add sax or organ, but there’s notably no bass). The cross-generational lineup means that it’s largely about absorbing each other’s influences: On one hand, the duo’s original tune “Beat to Eat” is classic-model New Orleans R&B, while the song “It Hurts” (which has echoed guitar, a recited lead vocal and a droning violin) sounds like U2 at their most experimental. They find common ground on “Jam 292,” a Hendrix piece that allows for furious solos by both leaders. Another instrumental, “Tourette’s” is two minutes of tense intro followed by two minutes of outburst. Most of the tracks are tied together by ambient sound effects that add to the anything-goes feel of this album—not just a credible take on blues-rock, but a surprisingly quirky one as well.