When I first caught Cryin’ D.T. Buffkin and the Bad Breath a year ago at the Esquire, I made the mistake of thinking them some sort of permanent fixture in the space. The sound seemed carefully calculated to fill the venue’s speakeasy vibe, the whole old-fashioned act mixing equal parts Tin Pan Alley songcraft and juke-joint blues, with a splash of New Orleans Dixieland to make it all go down easy. The band was at least novel in its novelty, and as they branched out into original material and more intricate arrangements and gigs, it was striking to watch the Bad Breath morph from enthusiastic revivalists into one of SA’s most intriguing up-and-coming acts.
Tattooed Rose, Buffkin and crew’s first release, feels like the summation of this growth. Dispensing of the Great American Songbook material that’s long been its bread-and-butter, the band sheds the borrowed nostalgia of those classic tunes in favor of a set of 12 originals. Roland De La Cruz’s ghostly guitar, Mason Macías’ sparse, shuffling drums, Andrew Maley’s anchoring bass, and Ricardo Martínez’ ethereal clarinet provide fine backing as Buffkin howls and pounds away on a piano that sounds like it hasn’t been played (or at least tuned) since Prohibition. Everything on Tattooed Rose seems geared towards recalling that unremembered era, including its vinyl-only release. Taken with its rustic production touch, it’s a move that more than succeeds in making the album feel like something discovered in a dusty bin of your grandfather’s attic.
Of course, the borrowed nostalgia wouldn’t amount to much if the songs didn’t hold up, and it’s here that Tattooed Rose really impresses. The title track seems to reach some hellish crossroads between Tom Waits’ “Singapore” and Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” with beheaded Huns, raving whores’ daughters, and Hitler all jockeying for a seat at the Ms. Tattooed Rose floor show. Meanwhile, lead-off single “Mt. Cigar Blues” stakes itself in juke-joint blues, providing a fine vehicle for Buffkin’s sly turns of phrase (“mount my head on a pretty girl’s rack.”)
It’s when Rose moves into torch song territory that it really soars. “Wasted Pennies” commits so fully to its era of parlor Victrolas and sharecroppers, it feels like it has to exist on some lost Billie Holiday session. But nothing captures the wounded beauty of the band’s sound quite like “Salvation Army,” a heart-wrenching tale of a man selling everything he has for some unspoken form of “relief,” the band burning along with him until erupting into a rollicking last gasp.
If Rose’s remaining tracks don’t quite hit these highs, they certainly reinforce the vintage cohesiveness of the record. For such ardent students of antique American sounds, it’s high praise that Buffkin and the Bad Breath have managed to offer something new within that tradition.