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Moanin' The Blues 

Ex-Trailer Bride Melissa Swingle and Laura King redefine the Delta

Unlike the chaotic garage-rock blues of the White Stripes or the punkish blues roar of the Baptist Generals, the duo of Melissa Swingle and Laura King fashion a bubbling, black-soil blues that derives its power from an authentic Mississippi delta lope. As the Moaners, King pounds her drum kit like Russell Crowe delivering a beatdown, while Swingle delivers riffs thicker than the cholesterol caking John Goodman's arteries. For fans of Swingle's previous outfit, the gothic-country act Trailer Bride, this is quite a switch. But Swingle retains the same rustic lethargy and vaguely deadpan delivery that gave the Bride a dark, haunting air. On record, it's possible to hear in the Moaners a resemblance to the Bride (just check out the organ-fueled dirge "Secret Joy"), but live the band transforms into a thunderstorm of wall-rattling riffage and booming drums. Swingle uses an effects pedal to loop the guitar lines, resulting in the tsunami of guitar rawk she sings over with a dispassionate shimmy that recalls PJ Harvey. One thing's for sure, this ain't no hootenanny.

"I felt I had taken [Trailer Bride] as far as I could without it starting to be redundant and repeating myself," Swingle says, redundantly. "I was really wanting to go in a heavier rock direction. That's not to say that every song on the next Moaners record will be totally hard rocking. We'll probably throw in some different things for variety."

The tall, dark-haired singer met King at a show in Chapel Hill and they exchanged numbers, promising to jam together down the road. It took five months for Swingle to get with King, but the Baltimore-bred drummer moved to North Carolina in 1999, following the new wave band Gerty to the Triangle.

"They got here hoping to find a drummer, but they didn't, so they called me up and said, 'You've got to be our drummer,'" King recalls.

Unfortunately, Gerty eventually replaced King with a drum machine. Undeterred, she hooked up with former fIREHOSE frontman Ed Crawford in Grand National before that band sputtered to a halt two years ago. The Moaners came along at the perfect time, according to King, and from the start she and Swingle had the right vibe.

"The first night we played together we wrote a song that's on our record, 'Water.' That was the first thing we ever wrote. We knew then we had good musical chemistry," King says.

The album's steady rumble and bluesy sway apparently developed naturally.

"Melissa and I have played different styles of music before and we're both self-taught so we just kind of do our own thing. It just kind of happened to sound like it did," says King. "I hit kind of hard on the drums — I'm a rock drummer, not a country drummer. Melissa wrote some cool songs and riffs, and we just kinda rocked it out."

The duo's debut, Dark Snack, delivers a chunky sonic signature that's visceral and bracing, and Swingle's written some sly, clever songs to go with it. On tracks such as the agoraphobic lament, "Too Many People," or the nasty-dog conceit, "Terrier" ("A little man who tries to bite you back... get off my leg"), Swingle displays her cynical observational wit.

"I'm writing songs with intelligent lyrics so that even a tone-deaf critic can appreciate them," says Swingle in her customary dourness. "I think that's part of the reason we've gotten good reviews — not that all the songs have really stellar lyrics, but I believe a lot of rock critics are journalists first, so they pay attention to the lyrics more than your average Joe in the club."

One can only imagine what goes on behind the dark sunglasses she wears on stage, but Swingle certainly has a keen eye for life's little absurdities. The duo's album title comes from something Swingle saw on one of her many road forays during Trailer Bride's half-dozen years together.

"I was in a gas station in South Carolina, and they had a big sign that said, 'Dark Snack $3.99,'" Swingle says. "And I thought 'Dark Snack'? That's a great idea for a band or something."

The album was recorded with Southern Culture On The Skids' leader Rick Miller, who has a studio in Mebane, NC. The studio is known for its live sound, which helps give Dark Snack its wide-open feel.

The Moaners are already thinking about the followup. "I think our next record's still going to be rocking," King says, "with maybe a couple slower numbers and some experimental stuff. We're playing with some different kinds of structures, and trying to make music that we like and that's just totally us."

I'll bet they do just that. The bold, bruising blues these two musical explorers make suffocates old gender stereotypes by striking out for new territory, leaving a raw, dusty sound in their wake.

The Moaners open for the Iguanas at the Double Door Inn on Saturday. Doors open at 9pm.

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