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CD Reviews - Sept 2007
Ian Seigal – Swagger >>
Ian Siegal – Swagger (Nugene)
I wrote of one of Ian's live shows last year (read it here), not too
long before his farewell gig at Ain't
Nothin' But where he'd been a regular
for, well, ages, that I thought there wasn't enough of himself in his
his bag of turns, tricks, references, winks and nods, which were all
spot on, I felt short-changed. Well not exactly - more that I was
watching an very gifted performer who was perhaps erring
on the side of caution, or maybe not quite being true to himself. Yet
to say he was all pork and no chop isn't accurate either.
Mighty Mo Rodgers – Redneck Blues (Dixiefrog)
The first thing to say about this is that it’s a great fun. It’s a bright-sounding, upbeat record, full of good tunes, top-notch playing and powerful singing. That needs saying, because a proper description of what singer, writer and keyboard player Mighty Mo Rodgers is all about might give the false impression that he’s a bit earnest. He isn’t. He is serious, but he isn’t solemn.
Mighty Mo is a man with a vision, and a man with a mission. He’s a philosopher (and he’s got a degree in it, taken after a lifetime in music and before he started making his albums in 1999). But Mo isn’t a leather patch on corduroy jacket kind of philosopher. He’s a blues philosopher. For Mo, the blues isn’t just a type of music, it’s a spiritual thing and it’s what makes sense of life. According to Mo, it ‘makes sense of the madness by changing what has disfigured into something wonderfully transfigured’. It’s the music of freedom, truth and love. While he emphasizes, and writes a lot of songs about, the fact that it is music born of slavery and the suffering and injustices perpetrated on black Americans, it has wider relevance than that for Mo – blues is nothing less than ‘a healing that is positive and redeeming … not tragic and sad but rather life-affirming’. It has ‘power that transcends place and time making it the only folk music that is truly worldwide.’
Now, however cynical you might be, if you’re into the blues, you just ain’t gonna argue with Mo on any of that. No, you’re going to say, ‘All right Mo!’ and stick his album on. And then Mo’s going to entertain you, and amuse you, and educate you across 17 tracks, a short video and a thickish booklet of notes and lyrics.
Mo writes all his own material and this album, like the previous two - Blues is My Wailing Wall (1999) and Red, White and Blues (2002) - takes you on a journey. It’s not just a collection of songs, it’s a set of statements linked to a theme, and the theme is the blues itself and the history of black Americans. It kicks off with some songs about the southern states past and present, from slavery to now, each giving Mo’s take on all that and some history too. Then there’s some philosophy, the titles giving you a fair impression of where Mo’s going with them - Don’t Die With A Lie (on your lip), There But For The Grace Of God (with a minor chord melody hook that Holland-Dozier-Holland wouldn’t have chucked in the bin), and Truth Justice and The Blues. Then we move onto some reflections on modern-day life, particularly in the US. There’s an angry lament on Katrina – No Second Line (This Time); a poke at gun culture – Guns, Gangs and Testosterone – and a rallying cry to save the country – Have You Seen The American Dream?
Mo is a true original and he comes at things from his own angle. I can’t imagine many people thinking the middle class a suitable case for sympathy in a blues song, but Mo does. In Death Of The Middle Class, he laments that it’s now the middle class that has to take all the crap and ‘foot the bill’. In They Bombed The Taj Mahal, with a ridiculously catchy chorus you may embarrassingly find yourself singing, he imagines the act that would tell him ‘it was the end of us all’. And in the title track, a raw ballad, he points out that the redneck and the black American have much in common, and so, much as he hates the redneck because of what he did in the past, there ought to be some kind of truce between them.
The music? Well, there’s quite a mixture of styles, though Mo is predominantly, in terms of his voice, from the soul wing of the blues family. In fact, his powerful, rich vocals would have made him a shoo-in for, say, the Four Tops in their heyday. He’s not reaching for any notes, they come to him, and, judging from the spoken snippets, his singing voice is a natural extension of his resonant speaking voice (sign of a good singer for me – sing like you talk and talk like you sing).
There’s quite a bit of New Orleans-style R & B fonk and funk running as a thread through the tracks, there’s some straightish blues, there are shades of gospel, some African rhythms. In fact, every track’s an event, with something a bit different to offer, and in this respect it’s a hark back to when people made albums where the track sequencing mattered (and it comes in at about 50 minutes – personally I think that’s about long enough for a CD, before what you’ve been enjoying starts to become a bit of a chore). Highlights for me include the horns on The Antebellum South Shuffle (Part 2), where a ska sound meets an Allen Toussaint-type arrangement, and the vocal and percussion only track Hambone Blues, with what sounds like marimba to the fore. My only quibble is that there’s a bit of a tendency to over-produce on Mo’s part, especially with the drums, which are just a bit too bright and synthetic for my liking – someone needs to tell him to rough that sound up a bit – but it’s a minor quibble.
Mighty Mo Rodgers is an ideas man and his ideas centre on the blues, though it could be said that he sings about them more than actually singing them in the purest sense of that. His voice is in Motown (and he was a house writer there once apparently) and his playing is in New Orleans, but his soul is in the blues. He writes memorable songs, and he’s an evangelist for the blues, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His albums are sometimes quite hard to get and his online presence is frankly a shambles if you want to find out more about him. But, given the quality and originality of his output, why Mighty Mo Rodgers isn’t reasonably well-known is yet another on the lengthening list of things I don’t understand.
According to Mo, this album is the third of ‘a projected twelve-cycle musical odyssey that documents the journey of the Blues People in the Diaspora of the West’. Anyone joining him on this journey won’t regret it.
John Schooley & His One Man Band – One
Man Against The World (Voodoo Rhythm Records)
Good God - listen and weep. The hottest mother f*****g tash blues is here on this album to kick your sorry backside from here to kingdom come - and you're gonna love every second. John Schooley is the devils own man and you're his bitch. Raw energy fires through his veins. Clearly he is driven to do what he does by an outside force.
'...I don't know what the hell
I'm doing' are the final passing remarks of the extensive sleeve
notes. Which you can read if you need to. If you can concentrate on
anything else when listening to this thing. My daughter slammed her fingers
in the door and the dog barked
his head off as my house burnt down, and the car blew up the
last time I put it on and I didn't even notice.
Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang – Dislocation Blues
Hellhound on his trail... Chris Whitley, who died aged 45 in November 2005, was one of the more interesting artists in the blues’ extended family. He played a battered National, but he had his own special set of chords for it, a kind of parallel universe to the standard, or even non-standard, blues techniques. In his own way, he was moving the blues on, while keeping one foot firmly in what it’s all about. He had an individual playing and writing style and an instantly recognizable voice and over his 15-year recording career, he seems to have been in restless pursuit of just what he wanted to get out of himself. With sad irony, it may well be that he found it in this, his best recording, shortly before he died.
Whitley went down all sorts of avenues in that recording career, starting with the brilliant and accessible Living With The Law (1991), with great songs, both solo and with full band, including the astonishing Phone Call From Leavenworth, a contender for greatest modern blues song. This album could have led to some sort of mainstream success, but Whitley’s restlessness as an artist led him off into a variety of less generally accessible sonic landscapes. There was a core to his work that made devotees stick with him, and he remained in essence a blues artist, but some of his work wasn’t all that approachable. And his development of a guitar style that leant heavily on a small but effective degree of dissonance ensured cult status.
In 2004 he put out War Crime Blues and Weed, two completely solo albums done on the hoof by all accounts, and among his finest work. They’re also from the blues part of his muse, the part he seemed to belong in but that he didn’t always follow. These albums confirmed that he was in fact a real bluesman for the modern age. There are no blues standards in them, they’re mostly his own songs, which means that he also confirmed that he was a real blues writer.
This album, recorded in Australia months before his death, with the Australian blues artist Jeff Lang, is a tour de force. If you like acoustic blues with edgy, eerie undertones, the kind of thing that gave the blues its associations with the devil’s music, this is exactly what you’d like a modern blues record to sound like. It’s intense, though not in a loud, hollering way, more in a quiet, sweaty night on the Delta kind of way. It’s brooding and enigmatic, with no sense of being performed for an audience. It’s like stumbling on a small band, led by a troubled soul with an itch that can’t be scratched, playing outside some tumbledown building in the middle of nowhere one night.
It kicks off with the probably the best version of the old standard Stagger Lee that’s been made since Mississippi John Hurt last had it on his set list. The song is completely reinvented, with a loping backbeat, upright bass, Whitley’s National and Lang’s lap steel. Whitley’s trademark delivery, drawled and thoughtful, then swooping into falsetto, delivers the tale as if he’d made it up and it had all just happened the night before. Most of the tracks continue in this musical vein, with a couple without the rhythm section and Whitley and Lang duetting.
This is in essence Whitley’s album, but Lang more than plays his part and is more than just along for the ride. He takes lead vocal on three or four tracks, the ones he wrote, but there is no discernible change to the vibe, his voice similar enough to Whitley’s to make it all seamless, the songs fitting in with Whitley’s just fine.
Two of the highlights are the Dylan covers, When I Paint My Masterpiece and Changing Of The Guard. In so far as one can imagine what goes on in the inscrutable Dylan mind, you’d have to imagine that he’d not only approve of these versions, he’d wish he could have made them. Dylan himself now appears to be in some sort of blues poet mode, and what Whitley and Lang do is to turn these songs into brooding blues laments. On the latter, they trade verses, and they inhabit the song as if it belonged only in their world, not so much a cover as a brand new thing.
There are two ‘hidden’ tracks at the end, and the first of these is a live solo recording of Whitley doing Hellhound On My Trail. This is, as they say, worth the price of admission alone, and is a contender for best Robert Johnson cover of all time. This is Whitley the troubled soul singing about himself – no other explanation could account for the fact that it sounds like something he wrote himself, not an interpretation of someone else’s soul in turmoil. He can’t sit down and talk about it, he can only sing it out, the jagged guitar accompaniment the perfect background.
Dislocation is about right – Whitley seems to have been a dislocated sort of bloke. But he could really play, and he could really sing, and he could really write, and if this album is anything to go by, he was heading for some truly great, genuinely new, blues. He didn’t get the chance, but he made his mark, and on this album alone he showed just how much possibility there still is in this thing called blues.
Jay Gipson - Piece of Me
I'll never forget hearing a BB King concert broadcast from
the Fairfield Hall on Radio 2 several years ago, where BB stumbles
helplessly with the pronunciation of 'Croyden', his Mississippi accent
faltering on the central phoneme. Since then, Croyden has not made much
of an impression upon me. Until now...
D. Mulligan - The Late Great Southwest (Independent)
Alt. Country', what is it? It's become about as interesting as pop country or post Clapton/SRV blues. The formula now is to whisper a breathy vocal in an attempt to woo slutty college girls. Any jackass with a messy hair cut whining a whisper about an ex can get a record deal and become the next Billboard hopeful.
Record reviewers, what's their job? To give you some idea about what a record sounds like before one buys it. To many get caught up in bashing everything they can and exposing weak points in an album or artist.
D. Mulligan is from the southwest United States, generally the state of Arizona from what I understand. His music reflects a definite southwestern style that was arguably perfected by Townes Van Zandt.This album of his, 'The Late Great Southwest' (obviously proud and disappointed in his home territory as so many of us are), is a very good record and thank God it doesn't fit the mold of modern 'alt. country' .
Even when he's addressing heartache, there is a calming effect in his voice and that is because he is such a nice guy. One of those you just know is from the moment you shake his hand. I had the pleasure to hang out with Mulligan a couple of times. He came to a show of mine in Tucson and before I headed out of town we got some mexican food together. Mulligan's sweet heart oozes out of his pours in bucket fulls and this album catches a glimmer of that sweetness. Now, he's not the reincarnation of Van Zandt and his songwriting at times can sound a bit forced but I can see him smoothing out those rough edges in future albums. This is a great album and it's not drenched in too much self loathing and extreme depression. I think it would do us all some good to add this to our record collections.
Key tracks are the first track 'Postcard' which starts the album off with a very traditional type of country sound without drenching it in too much Van Zandt or Parsons. Then second to last is the moody 'Mining Man'. In between are hills and desert valleys from the upbeat near pop sound of 'Get Back (Older Ways)' to the beautiful scape of 'Canyon Wren'. None of the instruments are overplayed but the chops of his band, The Carmel Formation, are definitely there. The Band (and sometimes The Stones) taught us to hold back on wanky showmanship for the greater good of the song and Mulligan seems to tilt his hat to these lessons.
A warm heart pines on broken relationships and wreckless hearts, always good in my book.
James Blood Ulmer – Bad Blood In The City (Hyena
Hide under the desk, George... James Blood Ulmer had had a long career as a guitarist in the world of free jazz when, at the turn of the century, he turned his attention big-time to the blues. As his subsequent recordings show, it’s the place where he belongs. He’s got a great blues voice and he’s put together a coterie of musicians to play with him who together produce a big, powerful sound that has a nodding acquaintance with the traditions of electric blues from the 40s and 50s but adds something new.
Ulmer started his dive deep into the blues with Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (2001), recorded at the legendary Sun studios. He followed that with No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (2003), recorded at the equally legendary New York studios. 2005 saw the totally solo Birthright, and now comes this new release, subtitled The Piety Street Sessions, because it was recorded at the legendary New Orleans studios. Ulmer is certainly getting around, as if making up for lost time.
Ulmer’s voice is the defining element of the album. It’s not a comforting voice – there’s something slightly unnerving about its rasping, croaking, almost wheezing tone. It’s a very distinctive voice and it’s unquestionably a blues voice. It sounds like the voice of a man who is simultaneously anguished and really quite cross. It’s a fractured voice that manages to be both thin and powerful at the same time. It’s a fascinating thing, and it draws the ear to it.
It’s at its finest on the self-penned Katrina. Legions of songs, and even whole albums, have been written about the shameful catastrophe inflicted on New Orleans two years ago, and this one is my candidate for the best of the lot (oddly enough, in second place I’m putting How’s Your House? by former Mott the Hoople leader Ian Hunter on his recent album Shrunken Heads, but I digress). It’s a slow, menacing number with distortion on Ulmer’s vocal, which is so up close that you can hear him wheezily breathing between lines delivered with a mixture of sadness and fury. At one point, having exonerated the personified Katrina for the real damage done, declaring her blameless in this, he repeatedly intones ‘Talk to the President’ in a manner that suggests the President would not enjoy such a conversation with Ulmer. You can imagine an aide saying ‘There’s a Mr Blood Ulmer to see you sir’, and returning a few minutes later to find Bush cowering under the desk while James Blood Ulmer stands over him, staring silently and breathing heavily.
Naturally, granted where the album was recorded, the theme of what happened to New Orleans, runs through the album, in tracks such as the funky opener Survivors of the Hurricane and Ulmer’s take on the old classic Backwater Blues, which is given a powerful, brooding treatment. Other tracks see Ulmer giving his personal makeover to songs by some of the blues greats, including the jolly, chaotic bar-band treatment of Dead Presidents by Willie Dixon, a wailing, echoy, riff-driven take on Howlin’ Wolf’s Commit a Crime and a jazzy, slinky version of Son House’s Grinnin’ In Your Face, with Ulmer in full croaking mode.
Ulmer and his band cook up a very big sound throughout the album. Vernon Reid, producer and guitarist who has been Ulmer’s main man on his trip into the blues, contributes plenty of guitar, there’s a keyboard player filling out the sound and getting up front here and there, there’s some very interesting and sometimes quite disturbing electric fiddle, some tasty harmonica playing washes over the proceedings, and there’s a tight and busy rhythm section of the kind that Hendrix would have hired on the spot. Ulmer contributes some staccato, spiky, edgy guitar playing throughout, some jazz harmonics here and there, and some weird and wonderful licks and runs.
The overall sound is of a kind of controlled mayhem, loose and tight at the same time. Things bowl along in a rollicking, slightly wild way, with bits sticking out, or they rumble along, dark and slightly menacing. As with Ulmer’s other blues albums, there are occasional sidesteps into somewhat psychedelic freak-out territory, with some feedback and distortion, particularly on the last track, where the guitar solo kicks off with an extraordinary noise of the kind that might be made by several of the world’s most obese people simultaneously sitting on whoopee cushions. But this freak-out element never takes over, it just adds to the overall enjoyment and air of healthy eccentricity that surrounds the whole thing. These are fine musicians who know exactly what they’re doing.
James Blood Ulmer comes over as a no-shit merchant you might not wish to mess with (for all I know he isn’t anything like that, but that’s what he sounds like). The atmosphere he gives off is quite a heavy one, with occasional forays into the wild. This, like his other blues albums, is well-produced, by which I mean it has a distinctive sound and isn’t slick. Ulmer is an artist who’s doing something different with the blues, putting his own personal imprint on it. Check him out, if you haven’t already.