[DEVILISH ROOTS] At its best, Portland's Sassparilla surpasses its sundry influences. But more frequently, frontman Kevin Blackwell is subsumed by the folksy roots music he so clearly admires. Granted, there are a variety of forms the singer and his troupe draw from on the dual release Pasajero and Hullabaloo, expanding on the spate of sounds jammed into 2012's Magpie. This new 19-song compendium finds Sassparilla offering a varied view of its compositions and performances, figuring Hullabaloo as a looser, live-feeling recording when contrasted with its mate. Jumping between the two, though, it's a bit difficult to suss out any significant difference.
"What the Devil Don't Know," from Pasajero, takes a restrained approach to Tom Waits' jive, bleeding out his vocal vibe and making the track suitable for the soundtrack of some detective mystery instead of a night of wild drunkenness. There's still enough swagger left to make the track more than just a retread, if not an utterly unique offering. Album closer "Radio Child" hedges toward adult contemporary during an otherwise endearing look at aging, with Blackwell, over a bed of lilting piano, struggling to identify an unknown song that nonetheless returns him to his younger days. In between, the band tosses in refried blues, pedestrian rock and a bit of keyboard to broaden its palette, but nothing shocking or too dissimilar from the second disc.
Hullabaloo, which the band surprisingly sees as the dynamo of the two, opens with a prewar blues gambit, as Blackwell slides "Through the Fence," drinking watered-down whiskey and referencing the devil, who looms large across the two discs. Blackwell seems fixated on the disgraced angel, crows and booze—each expected themes in works like this. For a band so certain of its rollicking live sets, the most revealing and endearing moments on either disc come courtesy of Blackwell and his unadorned guitar. Hullabaloo's "The Hoot Song" finds him all by his lonesome, again delving into bucolic concerns, but with the most baroque language offered on either of the discs: people painting their faces the color of the sky, magical kisses and railroad cars.
There's so much to wade through over the two discs, both in imagery and sheer musicality, that any perceived shortcomings are pretty easily negated. Seven albums into the ensemble's discography, though, it seems Sassparilla would have developed a more concerted personality by now. But with such an expansive recording coming just two years after Sassparilla's last release, it's likely the band has the creative momentum to craft something utterly unique in the near future.
SEE IT: Sassparilla plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Casey Neill and the Norway Rats, and McDougall, on Friday, June 20. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21 .