Purity of faith is a holy aspiration that's celebrated at various points throughout the self-titled debut from Apex quartet The Whistlestop. On the other hand, music that's willing to mix things up—not to dilute, but to expand—has divine power all its own. That, more than anything, defines The Whistlestop's roll call.
"Will Henry," for instance, rolls out a genuine bar-band crunch, big Stonesy guitars and Ian McLagan piano staring down last call with bloodshot eyes. But this isn't a rock 'n' roll record. The rangy voice of co-leader Rob Watson (who's joined by fellow founder and songwriter Mike Roy, veteran guitarist PeeWee Watson and drummer Kevin Boxell) can convey ache at either end of the spectrum. Just check "Come Home Baby Now," a lament for an old metal-body National guitar and a trombone. But this isn't the blues.
The pedal steel of guest Allyn Love haunts a couple songs, while the autobiographical "Fifty Fingers" sounds visited by the ghost of Roger Miller. But this isn't country. Several songs—most notably "The Money's Tight," which could have been written in the Great Depression's shadow—are the aural equivalents of the sepia-toned packaging and the vintage postcard included with the record. Though you could call it old-fashioned—say, in the spirit of Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer—it's certainly not an old-time record. The spiritual messages on this album are presented directly ("We're doing the best we can when we call on the Son of Man," the jaunty opener "Originator" declares repeatedly). Occasional Sunday morning harmonies gather in sweet refrains. But the ever-present piano, courtesy of Jim Crew, is often more saloon style than Methodist pew-side. Although it's mighty close, this isn't a gospel record.
At the core is "You Better Praise," a five-minute sermon on a mount of sincerity, not an ironic wink in sight, just swirling organ suitable for the church or Stax. It rides a gradual build, stopping short of too-high drama and instead hitting just the right note of hallelujah: It's old-time rock 'n' roll and blues and country and gospel, but none of those entirely. Pure blessed impurity, if you will.
The Whistlestop plays The Pour House with David Dyer & the Crooked Smile Band and the Kenny Roby/ Scott McCall Duo Saturday, Aug. 2, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $6-$8. The Whistlestop is the Independent Weekly's Album of the Month for August 2008.