“Believe in yourselves, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.” –Petunia
From the dark, weary, poetic side of the roots world, where lost souls born into the wrong time period go to dwell and dispel their misery in song, comes Petunia & The Vipers—a complexly influenced country and roots band with a mutable sound whose only constant is a call back to the earliest times of popular music when people like Woody Guthrie and Django Reinheardt were contemporaries, and when rock & roll and country were just forming and their sounds were virtually interchangeable.
Hailing from high on the Western Hemisphere in Vancouver, British Columbia, Petunia & The Vipers shift from primitive country, to rockabilly, to jazz chording and Latin rhythms like they’re one in the same—like a Canadian version of Wayne “The Train” Hancock with a sound that is completely original while still being referential to the better days of music.
Their latest album Inside of You works almost like a guided tour through the gilded era of early American music influences. The first song “Runaway Freight Train Heart” is very much a rockabilly number with an up-tempo train beat driver, while the next song finds the listener transported to a smoky French cabaret, with Petunia’s vocal warble and exotic jazz chords challenging the ear. Next comes “Bicycle Song” which sees the rise of the disarming sounds of Hawaiian-influenced steel guitar stoking memories of warm breezes and a carefree disposition, while the very austere, dearthy, almost monotone “Holy Budge Winters” refers heavily to the depression-era rolling prose of Woody Guthrie, almost painful to listen to as it evokes memories of hard times, tragedy, and ultimate redemption. This wild swing of styles continues throughout the album, keeping the listener on their toes, engaged, and guessing where Petunia & The Vipers will head next.
Petunia’s voice is the foundation of this band. It has been described by some as an upside down yodel, but he can yodel right side up just as strongly, and as strong as anyone ever has. His level of control and unique cadence has to be universally regarded, whether you enjoy the sound it makes or not. Petunia very much fits the form of his music—a more artistic approach, purposely fey in places to ward off any potential interlopers just looking for a simple good time. There are certainly many moments on Inside of You that find your pulse racing and your feet tapping. In fact there’s a whole album’s worth of that material, and that can be the alpha and omega of your Petunia experience. But the Quebec native wants to get your gray matter hopping too, throwing you off his scent as soon as you think you’ve figured out his game, and giving you moments that make you think as much as feel.
The title track is one of the most stripped down moments of the album, featuring just an acoustic guitar and Petunia waxing poetically about the wayward path of man, and how the world has a tendency to hide the notion of who we truly are from ourselves. Though what Petunia says is nothing new, it nonetheless hits home in the hearth he builds for the message.
Some of these songs are just going to be too fey for some ears. “Holy Budge Waters” will be misunderstood by some who have not studied early American folk tradition, while Petunia’s strange tone on the chorus of “Primitive Love” will have certain people reaching to lower the volume, despite the production of the track being one of the best on the album. Inside of You concludes with some of its most country offerings, like the fiddle-driven “Gunned Down” doing fair justice to the dower, almost Gothic mood that many of Petunia & The Vipers’ songs reside in. The last two tracks once again take the rhythm in an upbeat direction, ending the album strongly and tied to the country and rockabilly roots.
Some bands and artists are so creative, their stories etch a tragedy of never finding the commercial recognition they deserve. Other artists must take their inspiration and interpret it to a more accessible audience. Petunia & The Vipers are one of these creative generators and innovators, and their music and moxy can be found defining the cutting edge of what is considered creative in country and roots today, while still keeping alive what made country music great in the past.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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If you like what you hear, also check out Petunia & The Vipers’ first album.