Local songwriter Stephen Jenkins isn't always in a hot mood. Sometimes the keyboardist/guitarist can sound almost down-and-out while singing his songs with his Americana band Green Levels and his newly established side project Yellowknife. But more often than not, his heartfelt lyrics and deep-toned vocals come off with sass and feeling, avoiding the risk of bumming out his audience.
If Green Levels aims for a twangy, jam-grass style, Yellowknife wears its soul influence like a state-flag patch on its sleeve.
"I still have gospel influences," says Jenkins. "And I love the rock bands of the '90s, too. Your influences never change, but you can adjust how you apply them."
Yellowknife became a vehicle for Jenkins' skewed funk-rock smarts and wise-guy wordplay. Drummer Stratton Moore (also of Po'Ridge, Shonuff) provides the backbeat.
"Green Levels hit that wall where you stop recording and writing as much," says Jenkins. "We're still having fun playing, and the show is very user-friendly, but Yellowknife is a different thing all together. I just wanted to play some rock 'n' roll. I love the catchy, three-minute, traditional rock song."
Onstage, Jenkins and Moore look like former hippies modeling young men's apparel for mail-order catalogs. Musically, their quirky mix of styles pairs well with tongue-in-cheek pop and soul-rock influences.
They first came together at an impromptu gig at the Drop In on Folly Beach. Things went terrifically, so they stuck with it. Initially, the twosome failed to find an audience, but after a series of hot-shit shows at the Pour House (their set at the Strap-On Face Funk event last spring caught ears), they successfully earned a small but loyal following.
Jenkins sets up with his keys and guitar amps on one side with Moore facing him at a slight angle. Not as heavy and raw as the blues-rock duo Black Diamond Heavies, their live show resembles a cross between a funkier Black Keys and a less comedic Flight of the Conchords.
"With Yellowknife, it's fresh, and there are a lot of songs to work up," says Jenkins. "We're new to most people. Folly Beach knows who we are, but that's about it.
"It's a new freedom," he adds. "It's really refreshing. I remember the first show we did at the Drop In. We just nailed it. The crowd responded to it very well. It was really a two-hour set of making chord progressions and lyrics up on the spot. We don't do that so much anymore, but it was fun that night."
Yellowknife already has several tracks in the works at Jim Donnelly's Island Sounds studio. Jenkins says they're trying to capture their live-show rawness on the recordings, but it's a challenge. "It's hard to get that right in the studio, you know? The songs can just fizzle or sound too mechanical."
Recent demos show a penchant for classic '70s pop, like the melodic and soulful anthem "Digging on the Stereo." The slow-moving "Right as Rain" drones with a more modern-alt-pop rhythm and tone. The electric piano sets the quirky rhythm on "And He's Gone." The more dramatic "Cotton Candy" is a snappy pop dirge that could have easily been pulled from the B-side of an early Billy Joel song or Elton John LP.
"I had more than 50 songs on the back-burner," says Jenkins. ''I used to be in bands that were more spacey and arena-like in the Radiohead vein. That's more where this is going."