A collaboration between former Sequoyah Prep School headmaster Justin Osborne and Charleston indie rocker Johnny Delaware, SUSTO takes a darker, rootsier direction than either of their résumés might suggest. The word “Susto,” according to the band’s own bio, is a term describing a “folk illness” — apt nomenclature for the kind of moss-drenched Americana in which the band wraps its songs.
Opening with “Black River Gospel,” SUSTO establishes its Southern gothic stance right away, dropping in snippets of various old-time hymn lyrics as the tale of indoctrination in the songs of faith unfolds: “We were up onstage like a sacrifice to God,” they sing, “that’s the price you pay when you grow up in the South.”
Like Flannery O’Connor, they’re not afraid to expose unpleasant truths. “Motorcycle Club” is a crisp and bitter hallucinatory diatribe that’s part Steve Earle, part Neil Young & Crazy Horse, with a chorus that declares, “There’s a demon in me in the Holy City.”
Osborne imports at least one song from his Sequoyah days with the acoustic night moves of “Friends, Lovers, Ex-Lovers, Whatever.” It’s an easygoing tune that’s a Todd Snider wisecrack or two away from becoming a classic, but as stories of loyalty and friendship go, it’s a catchy one with clear sing-along potential.
The closing “Smoking Outside” is a mellow exit for this introduction to the older, more mature singer-songwriter in both Osborne and Delaware, relying on cautionary lines like, “I tell her all the time, ‘You can rock ‘n’ roll any day’ / I tell her all the time, ‘Just keep it to once a day,’” and closing with a gorgeous instrumental coda worthy of Blue Rodeo or Chris Isaak; it doesn’t really end, it just fades gently into the distance as the performance continues, suggesting more to come from this promising new project.