Birthing guttural rock and roll with soulful R&B vocal grooves is not necessarily a new thing, but considering its general lack of cultural permanence, it may as well be. So when R&B songstress Jessie Wagner teams with the big rock draws in Envy, the result is gripping. The two parties convened in 2011 with their debut full-length, Handle It. Fans got their first impression of this experimental combination, and it helped contribute the mixture to the grander scheme of indie soul and rock.
The pair is at it again with the Army of the Underdog EP. With its apt title, it seeks to remedy this lack of genre-blending in a compact frame. The seven track release teases a few degrees of the spectrum. “Backseat Girl” has this frolicking guitar line that sounds almost reminiscent of Stray Cats rockabilly. Yet “Take Me Over” is an intoxicating Deep South Skynard tune that brings about a big rock voice in Wagner through the outlet of pummeling guitars and country/rock tones.
Jessie Wagner is the vocal glue keeping Envy’s guitar fascination reserved and in check. You get the feeling that they are ready to let loose and craft this dominating guitar rock record. But a little restraint goes a long way, especially when it is sonically balanced. So when Wagner is wailing away in “OH” or calmly reflecting in the Stevie Nicks inspired tune ‘Stuck in My Own Way,” she keeps the ball balanced in the middle of the plate. Few songs waver too much into one territory over the other. On one hand, this could be seen as too safe. But it comes across as more collaborative- no one party is dominating the sound. This allows all members to impress the producer with their own creative inclusions. Even the drummer gets some time to flex the sticks in “Party Revolution,” the surprisingly NOT disco inspired closing track on the EP.
The fit, albeit slightly jarring, should be quite natural. Jessie Wagner has toured with famous country/rock icon, Kid Rock, and performed vocals on his last three albums (and on his best songs, quite honestly). Wagner, despite obvious appreciation for Alicia Keys and Amy Winehouse, seems more than at home with her country brethren.
Few collaborative efforts are as uniformly balanced. Does this mean that Army of the Underdog is safe? I suppose, but it is hard to call any release fronted by an African-American R&B singer and backed by Southern rock enthusiasts something even close to safe. But for all their genre-blurring tendencies, Army of the Underdog is a release by a band not needing to consider themselves underdogs. Their sound is perplexing, but just clean and forward enough to win over the heavy hitters that like their music to go down like appropriately priced wine.