The new album from the northeast-Iowa blues duo Joe & Vicki Price is called Night Owls, and the cartoonish cover art (by Vicki) features five literally skeletal figures (including a man and woman each with a guitar and amp).
The title couldn't be more appropriate, as the 10-track collection of originals often has the casual feel of a post-midnight jam - intimate, a little on the sleepy side, wholly devoid of self-consciousness. Just two people performing with their guitars, voices, and feet.
The sound is similarly straightforward, unadorned, and unfussy, and some tunes feel so dusty that they're only missing the pops, crackles, and hisses of neglected vinyl or degraded tape. Even though the album was recorded in Nashville, the production is largely (and intentionally) artless.
Yet despite the cheeky cover illustration and lightly electrified tunes that might as well be 60 years old, there's a real vitality in the duo's songs (written, with the exception of "Bones," separately) - and the recordings. The bare-bones (sorry!) instrumentation and the choices in style and singing are employed with rigor, and the more you listen to the album, the more it's apparent how carefully constructed it is.
"High Blood Pressure" is particularly striking, with an understated funk in the lead guitar, a gentle counterpoint in the other guitar, and sandpaper vocals from Joe (a 2002 inductee into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame). Those components would be enough to carry the song, but in one passage (and only one passage) Vicki pairs her voice with her husband's, and it's the perfect little touch matching the slightly askew guitar interplay. That lead guitar sounds a little tipsy - deeply eloquent but drunk enough to stumble and momentarily lose the tempo, and sober enough to finish the song with a bravura dancing, percussive flourish.
Opener "Honey" invokes Night Owls' drawling vibe immediately, with slow blues licks and Vicki's sweetest singing, but within a minute the song shows the album's giddy-up, as deliberate gives way to rollicking guitar and soulful belting. "Dark Bar," as its title suggests, sustains the pleasantly listless mood for its entirety, with Vicki in lounge-singer mode and contrasting guitar styles - jazz on the one instrument and slightly blown-out blues on the other.
The relaxed, unforced singing on Nights Owls is well-suited to its laid-back atmosphere, and the two vocalists provide a natural variety, with Vicki showing an ample range on her own. But in truth, there's not much that needs to be said (or sang): Joe's and Vicki's guitars say, moan, screech, and shout plenty on their own, fully evident on the instrumentals "Airline" and "Whoopee Pie" - very different tracks that push the blues into rockabilly territory. The former rocks, and the latter is spare, precise, and lovely, with the light percussion (on a guitar body) skittering around.
The lead on "A Beer Away" effectively mimics a horn section without ever losing its electric-blues character. The guitars on "Fat Cat" are playful and upbeat, while on "Love Kills Slowly," the bass-heavy playing is slightly ominous and off-kilter, a smart complement to Joe singing, "Love is murder."
So the first impression of Night Owls might be of something tossed-off quickly and easily, and that feeling is reinforced throughout. Yet the minimalist aesthetic and comfortable blues disguise an album that's sneaky in its richness.
Joe & Vicki Price will perform on Sunday, May 3, at a Mississippi Valley Blues Society (MVBS.org) benefit concert at the River Music Experience (129 Main Street, Davenport; RiverMusicExperience.org). Doors open at 1:30 p.m., and other performers include Ellis Kell, "Detroit" Larry Davison & Charlie Hayes, "Detroit" Larry & Blues Rockit, Mercury Brothers, Hal Reed & Mississippi Journey, The Candymakers, and Robert Jon & the Wreck.
For more information on Joe & Vicki Price, visit JoePriceBlue.com.