Since his major label debut, the groundbreaking Salesmen and Racists, Ike Reilly has been making punk/folk/blues influenced rock ’n’ roll records that lean heavily on stories of outsiders with keen details and broad strokes that insinuate a crack in the American dream. Reilly’s band, The Assassination, has been called one of the best live bands in America, and the body of recorded work they’ve turned out has been poetic, rebellious, wholly original, and critically acclaimed.
Still, Reilly and co-producer Phil Karnats (Secret Machines, Tripping Daisy, Polyphonic Spree) felt that Reilly’s best takes had never been recorded. The lucidity and rhythm of Reilly’s performances that Karnats had witnessed in hotel rooms, backstage, and on tour buses had never been captured. “I wanted to create a setting where lil’ Ike could sing and play guitar at the same time, with the band in the same room... no headphones and minimal isolation,” says Karnats.
“There's always been a freshness to playing the songs together that's hard to harness when recording in the more common, modern, sense where you do rhythm tracks first, then overdubs and vocals last. This time, Ike did his thing and we developed the arrangements based on his vocal approach, cadence, phrasing, intensity and all that. I think, in the end, we ended up with some killer songs that have a strangely unique, slightly off-center, vibe.”
The resulting record, Crooked Love (2018), is Reilly’s seventh studio album. From the apocalyptic playfulness of “Missile Site,” to the weary let’s-get-it-on abandon of “Don’t Turn Your Back on Friday Night,” to the escapist urgency of “Boltcutter Again,” to the gnarly, percolating groove drip of “Clean Blood Blues,” Crooked Love shows how Reilly has landed himself squarely in the raw, emotional zeitgeist of the times. “Chasing that timeless feel in a time like 2018 can be a tall order but we did it,” Reilly admits. “Nobody sounds like this… musically or sonically. It’s fucking authentic. I never made a record before that sounds like this.”
Indeed, this collection of succinct, tight-but-loose songs reflects the continuing evolution of Reilly’s ever-visceral wordsmithing, as married with a Murderer’s Row of backing tracks forged out of the intuitive interplay of his longstanding Assassination bandmates — guitarist Karnats, bassist Peter Cimbalo, drummer David Cottini, and guitarist/ keyboardist Adam Krier. Not to mention the input of a few special guests, too, including guitarist Tommy O’Donnell, pianist Ed Tinley, and saxophonists Mars Williams and Bill Overton, as well as family legacies Mickey Reilly on vocals and Peter John Cimbalo on drums.
One reason said vibe was so perfectly met on Crooked Love is how its content was ultimately born out of the core band’s innate reaction to the material before them. “The ability to not overplay is everything,” Reilly feels. “It’s something that’s hard to do, but these guys I play with — they know what they’re doing. They hear my songs, they interpret and color them… not with musical clichés but with interesting parts that help distinguish my songs from the run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter shit you hear. They’re the best players, no showboat bullshit, and our collective musical knowledge and taste has evolved, for better or worse, in the same direction.”
One Crooked song that Reilly feels is the lynchpin to the record is “Been Let Down,” which moves from shuffle to backstab in the blip of a heartbeat. “We had a loose structure to ‘Been Let Down,’ but nothing written in stone, no exact measures to the instrumental parts,” Reilly says. “I had words but mostly images that I was gonna fit into spaces… no exact lengths to choruses. On the surface it’s got a John Lee Hooker vibe, but slightly tweaked. We were all in the same room no headphones or any of that shit, and really all I could hear was the rhythm section and myself. When we listened to the playback I was blown away. It was so off-kilter, really fucking fresh. The guitar and keyboard parts worked in and around my harp and vocal like we had charts. I was blown away by this take and the beauty of the recording.”
The album’s opener, “Livin’ in the Wrong Time,” also evokes a certain kind of “real feel,” with a cool, steely tone and a psychotically festive sonic twist during its ear-grabbing solo section. “I had this melody for a horn part that I just sang during the instrumental section, so that I wouldn’t forget it,” Reilly recounts. “Phil really deconstructed or distorted my vocal with some gizmo that had a tube in it, and Adam doubled the melody with a ratty keyboard. It’s a really urgent sound — it’s disarming and catchy.” Reilly concludes with a hearty chuckle, “That part always leads me to break into some kind of perverse dance! It seems to makes everyone who hears it want to do something kind of strange and jerky, like some kind of weird shuffle.”
What that track also shows is how much Crooked Love shares the timeless quality that records that stand the test of time are able to evoke. “I’ve always been trying to get that timeless sense all along, but I think this record actually does do that,” Reilly concedes. “I know I’ve fallen into the modern trap a couple of times in my recordings and with some of my lyrics maybe being a little too in the moment at times, but I hope I’ve been able to achieve something else with the direction and attitude of this one.”
Walking that fine line between being topical and universal is another goal Reilly wanted to attain with this album. “I’m not sure if all the songs reflect what’s going on right now,” Reilly says. “You know, Trump’s insane behavior, racism and classism out in the open, a new nuclear threat, the planet’s demise. The songs were written under the shadow of all of that, but most people still just need and want love, affection, sex, and the simple pleasures of human contact. I have optimism for society and for its survival, though I am pretty fatalistic in the sense of, ‘This is what it is. It’s right here, it’s right now, and this is it.’ That can either drive you crazy or motivate you to squeeze every last drop out of it, you know?”
We know it well, in fact, for Crooked Love is as haunting and straight-shooting into the heart as anything you’ll hear this year. And that’s also how you know you’re living in the right time.