Halloween Review – The Bridge City Sinners “Unholy Hymns”

photo: Byron Jeremy

Halloween isn’t just for trick-or-treaters and haunted houses. It’s a country music holiday too. 364 days of the year, we don’t always have the perfect opportunity to delve into the dark side of country music—the Gothic roots inspired by the sinister revelations of Appalachian folk, the murder ballads of the American South, and the ghost stories from out West.

Rivaled maybe only by death metal, the country and roots realm can populate your Halloween playlist like no other, whether it’s bands such as Those Poor Bastards, Lonesome Wyatt and the Holy Spooks, The Bloody Jug Band, and the Sons of Perdition who specialize in this type of gory stuff 24/7, or artists like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Hank Williams III, Rachel Brooke, Lindi Ortega, or even legends like Johnny Cash who dabbled in the dark roots throughout their careers (here is a {slightly outdated} playlist).

As much as Saving Country Music has attempted to shine a spotlight on this often-overlooked sector of country and Americana over the years, failing to mention the Bridge City Sinners out of Portland, OR until this point is a sin of the highest order. When it comes to Gothic country, they’re one of the genre’s most successful and accomplished bands. Now on their 3rd album, they tour the country regularly, and have garnered a huge following.

Lead singer Libby Lux and upright bass player Scott Michaud were busking musicians, hopping trains across the United States, and playing on street corners for ragged dollars when they formed the band in 2016 by taking true acoustic string music, mixing it with a little Prohibition-era jazz and ragtime, and infusing it with a dark, DIY, punk attitude.

But unlike some dark roots bands like The Goddamn Gallows, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and others (yes, I’m purposely name dropping here to help spread the word), the Bridge City Sinners truly are an authentic string band. There’s no drums, and no electric instruments.

In fact, they’re so genuine with their approach, they’ve been invited to perform at places like the prestigious Northwest String Summit, and have performed at other folk/bluegrass gatherings otherwise unwelcoming to punk roots and underground country bands. This speaks to the quality of the songwriting and instrumentation the Bridge City Sinners boast.

Oh but don’t worry. If blood and guts is what you want, they’ve got you plenty covered. They also performed on the Warped Tour at one point, and regularly tour and perform at punk festivals and venues, because this is where they find the audience for their high energy and ominously dark music. That’s what’s cool about the Bridge City Sinners. They’ve made a version of authentic string band music accessible and cool to punk and metal kids by bringing a darkness to the medium.

This is what you hear throughout their latest album Unholy Hymns. The songwriting of a track like “Rock Bottom” isn’t far off from Hank Williams or Townes Van Zandt. “Devil Like You” sits right down in early country’s murder ballad traditions. And the opening song “The Devil’s Swing” reminds you of ragtime-era music, or revivalists such as the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

The instrumentation and arrangement is superb. And most importantly, Libby Lux is the perfect anti-star for this type of performance art. She’s an incredibly talented vocalist that brings a lot of character to evoking the dark arts in acoustic music. She’s what makes the Bridge City Sinners something more than just a post-punk screamy roots band.

You may have to be in the right mood, or be the right type of sick and twisted soul to enjoy this type of madness set to music. But on Halloween, we all have an excuse to walk on the dark side. It just happens to be that The Bridge City Sinners are good enough to fulfill your most sinister appetites all year.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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Unholy Hymns is released on the Bridge City Sinners’ own label Flail Records, operated by bassist Scott Michaud, who also helped release an EP called Beyond the Lamplight by Ian and Andrew formerly of Larry and His Flask earlier this year.

Purchase on Bandcamp

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