The nice thing about bands that exist under the radar is that they aren't subject to the same pressures as mainstream groups, who often crumble under the weight of expectations. Free from the psychological tyranny of major-label bean counting and the jaws of an anticipatory press, their records tend to evolve and improve over time.
Listening to "C'mon DJ," the third and latest release from Mr. Airplane Man, it's clear the female alt-blues duo has sold its soul to the devil, not the record business. Singer-guitarist Margaret Garrett's vocals are achingly honest, as if she's lived a thousand lives of heartbreak, and drummer Tara McManus seems to feel her pain. She keeps the beat with a nuanced emotionality that is so connected with Garrett it can only stem from female intuition.
On the group's previous two albums, Mr. Airplane Man tended to wear its influences on the sleeve. It was clear the band had spent quality time at the turntable studying masters like Howlin' Wolf, the landmark Mississippi-born artist who also inspired the group's name.
But with "C'mon DJ," they've become quite masterful themselves. No longer are they just a grungy tribute to vintage blues but a band that's come into its own, "juicing up" standard melodies and riffs with touches of punk and an echo of girl groups from the '60s.
"It's so understated and so simple, and there's no big incredible pretense about we're so cool or this or that," says Long Gone John, who's released the group's three albums on his Sympathy for the Record Industry label. "They do what they do, and if people like it, fine. It turns out what they do is extremely cool."
In the 16 years Long Gone John's been running Sympathy, his independent label has enjoyed a cult following among music fans who share his affection for under-recognized artists.
These days, even the mainstream music industry is tuning its ear to the reclusive Long Beach anti-mogul, who's now seen as something of a visionary for signing the White Stripes when so many other indies took a pass on what has become the most acclaimed young band in America. Mr. Airplane Man, he says, is just as great a band.
Like their former label mates, Mr. Airplane Man is also a two-piece: one guitarist, one drummer. But unlike the now infamous Detroit rockers, Garrett and McManus never intended to be a duo.
"We just wanted to play really bad, and for a while we couldn't find anybody who got it," McManus says.
But after hearing other bass-free bands, such as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, she and Garrett decided a bass player was unnecessary.
"It really made us both realize we don't have to feel held back because we can't find someone to play with," says McManus, who quickly fell in love with the stark, edgy sound they coaxed out of such a minimalist arrangement. "As a two-piece, we really get this thing going between us. We've known each other so many years, we're practically like sisters."
McManus and Garrett met more than 20 years ago at a New Hampshire summer camp when they were both 10. Because they were "so into music," they were instantly inseparable, says Garrett, whose parents fed her a steady diet of jazz and classical while McManus' turned them on to "cool things" like the Beatles and Neil Young.
Freeing themselves of parental influence as teenagers, they got into the local punk scene in their native Boston. That in turn led them to the blues, starting with present-day Fat Possum Records artists like R.L. Burnside and continuing further back in time to the classics.
"When I got turned on to Howlin' Wolf, the sound was just so great -- gritty and not overly produced. It wasn't the typical rounds and everything sounding so cliche and boring and dried up," Garrett says. "It was so rockin'. So moody."
So moving, in fact, that the two formed a band. It began at Garrett's parents' house, with McManus playing a bucket. After moving on to "real" instruments, they relocated their act to the streets, where the group's powerfully raw sound caught the ear of Mark Sandman. The now-deceased Morphine front man was so impressed with the group that he helped them with their first record.
Recorded in the living room of Memphis musician Jim Evans, the raw and rootsy "Red Lite" was released on Sympathy for the Record Industry in 2001. The following year brought "Moanin'," which pulled from the same grab bag of covers and originals as the group's debut but showed greater dynamic range in songs that ran the gamut from explosive, gut-busting rock to dreamy balladry.
It's on "C'mon DJ" that the group truly shines, however. The duo seem far more confident and accomplished as musicians. Garrett's guitar work is wrenching, and her vocals on tracks like "Don't Know How to Love" are so heartfelt they sometimes crack and quiver with emotion.