Even hardcore fans must admit that the results of most rock side projects are rarely as good as the ideas that spawn them. Magic is rare, with too many half-wit wizards working against their own strengths for dumb glory, misinterpreting wandering artistic spirit for genius. But the Black-Eyed Snakes -- a garage-blues move by Alan Sparhawk, singer/ guitarist for Minneapolis's cult-followed, pastoral-drone trio Low -- is a spectacularly happy accident, a mountain of primordial fuzz-roots, a classic.
As slide-playing, distorted-mic-fronting "Chicken-Bone" George (the name he assumes in the album credits), Sparhawk and the Black-Eyed Snakes make a raucous rock and roll noise, interpreting the bassless boogie of the Hound Dog Taylor/R.L. Burnside school through garage rock. Like fuses in an old lo-fi power box, rotting in the basement and then suddenly turned on full blast, guitars, harmonicas, and random percussion instruments spike classics everyone knows ("Smokestack Lightning," "Mannish Boy," and Moby's "Honey" among 'em) into mean juke-joint throw-downs. A couple of originals seem just as thoughtfully moldy. Like all good historical fables, it's sheer glee for the young and old alike.
But "Chicken-Bone" also plays to his own strengths. A good post-punk soul, he works curveballs into the act -- electrifying a dark gospel tune originally written with Australia's Dirty Three ("Lordy"), then Beefhearting a Fall cover ("My New House"). He invests these snake moans with an irony-free humanity, closing with a glorious little kiddie-blues original called "Cheerios on the Floor" that's alive with familial warmth. All this makes the Snakes sound less a side-project goof than a primal rock jewel, unearthed in an unlikely landscape and hard to forget.