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CD Reviews - January 2008
White Stripes - Icky Thump
Another outing from the Detroit duo that doesn’t disappoint! Maybe not at the heights of 2003’s Elephant, but definitely worth a look.
The White Stripes are of a rare breed. A band that has very rarely compromised it’s ideals but has still found amazing success. A band that have taken a genre long lost in the doldrums, modernized it and almost made it their own ( with the exception of the Black Keys). Their take on garage blues was largely drawn from the influence of bands such as the Stooges and MC5, but has gradually taken on traits from more traditional artists (Bukka White and Blind Willie Mctell) to form a sound which crosses over into mainstream, blues, rock and even the odd country/folk exploration. Like them or not, their contribution to the blues and it’s longevity, are undeniable.
The title track is a brave opener, with shades of Zeppelin and dare I say it, even a touch of Black Sabbath, along with some almost Indian influenced phrases. It shows the duo’s complete disregard for what is deemed mainstream, despite their global appeal. White’s now familiar squealing guitar sound is strewn randomly over the riff laden track and his biting vocal drives the song along. Somehow it feels like an epic even though it comes in at just over 4 minutes.
Whites’ diversity isn’t hidden as the album develops, with 2nd track You don’t know what love is being as far removed from the previous song as possible. But still it’s pop sensibilities don’t seem out of place.
There is a definite Beatles influence (think “Norwegian Wood” meets “Within you Without You”) on the sing-along Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn, which is then followed by the dark rocker (but delightfully named) Little Cream Soda, only highlighting again the fact that the duo are above what is deemed “proper” in terms of a mainstream release
I’ve recently heard that this album has been regarded as a flop, I can only assume due to it’s lack of a homogenous sound an the small mindedness of the music press. Personally I think their approach should be applauded and should inspire other bands not to be afraid of laying bare some of their influences, be it Blues, World Music, Pop or Folk, who cares as long as it’s good?
Man can’t live by blues alone!
James Hunter - People Gonna Talk (Go Records)
The talented Mr Hunter is gradually starting to get the plaudits he rightly deserves. And this album will do nothing but cement his standing.
The majority of tracks come in at under 3 minutes, but have everything included to satisfy the listener. Great musicianship without overplaying, classy delivery, authenticity and most importantly good songs!
The production (Liam Watson) is delightful too. There is always a danger of making one instrument or voice the focus of an album, especially when it’s a solo artist, but here there is a perfect balance between everything, which is somehow very comforting.
However retro this album might be, it’s essential listening if you have any interest in this genre. I personally am constantly talking about the need to move things on in the Blues, but even I have to admit that when traditional stuff is done as well as this then you can’t help but be satisfied, an undoubted talent that needs to be encouraged to keep producing gems like these, so put your hand in your pocket and see if you agree.
Fathead – Building Full of Blues (Electro Fi Records)
Fathead is a Canadian band that’s been around for quite some time. This record bears the hallmark of a bunch of guys who’ve gigged a hell of a lot more times than they’ve made on-time mortgage payments. Everything about their sound shouts out ‘road-tested’, and every track sounds as if it’s been honed by a band that’s developed over the years into a compact fighting unit.
Fathead is primarily a good-time band. If you stumbled into a bar somewhere, with the right company and just a modest amount of mind-altering assistance, and they came on, you’d swear they were the best band you’d ever heard. If you were having a big party and you could afford them, you’d hire them. They rock in the original sense rather than in the blues-rock sense, and they play together (an attribute not to be sneezed at).
They’re a five-piece, and some of what makes them a bit different is the presence of a guy who doubles on harp and sax, bringing plenty of variety to the sound. The lead vocalist is on the soul side of blues, and they play very well worked-out but no-nonsense dance music. Their basic style is a very enjoyable shuffle boogie and they’re as tight as a band can get. Everyone does their bit just right and nobody does too much (another attribute not to be sneezed at).
This is a fun album produced by a superior band. The top track for me is Bitter When I’m Old, which includes not one but two terrific shuffle boogie rhythms and wry lyrics expressing a sentiment that many would endorse, but few can live up to.
Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley – Morning Sun (Electro Fi Records)
This record is described on the back as ‘an affectionate tribute to the classic Bluebird Records blues sounds of the 1930s and 40s’. That’s absolutely true, but it’s a bit more than that, because all the songs are original compositions written especially for the album by one or both of the artists. So it’s actually an attempt, and a very successful one, to produce new material in the distinctive style of something old and important in the evolution of the blues.
Bluebird was a budget label and subsidiary of Victor that was established in Chicago by legendary blues talent scout and producer Lester Melrose in 1933, in the teeth of the Depression. To cut costs and increase output per session, Melrose used a core group of musicians on many of the label’s blues records, a set-up that resulted in a kind of house band that was the forerunner of the set-up at Sun and Tamla Motown. That house band was likely to include some or all of Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson 1, Roosevelt Sykes, Washboard Sam and Ransom Knowling. Most of the blues greats of the era made their own records and played on each other’s records on Bluebird, which lasted until 1942. What was known as the ‘Bluebird sound’ or the ‘Bluebird beat’ was a kind of half-way house between the rougher, Delta-type sound the house band members had grown up with, and a lighter, jazzier, and more danceable style that had one foot in the pop music of the day and one foot in what was going to become rock n’ roll a decade or two later.
This record is extremely faithful to the original source, but it’s not a pastiche – the songs and performances are too good for that. Braithwaite and Whiteley have written a set of numbers here which cover the considerable breadth of what Bluebird put out, from ‘pure blues’ to ragtime, to jazzier stuff, to single-entendre rudeness, to folk/blues. It’s all acoustic, but it’s got a big acoustic sound. Braithwaite has a pure, clear, melodic tone – she’s a ‘proper’ singer, not a throaty belter. Whiteley (not incidentally to be confused with the late lamented Chris Whitley) is a multi-instrumentalist who plays all the guitars, cornet and harp – he plays them all very well and has a good singing voice that’s well up to the task. The duo, who have joined forces for this record rather than being a regular pairing, are accompanied on some tracks by other instruments that add colour here and there, but this is very much a duo record, and Braithwaite and Whitely sound as if they’ve been playing together for years.
It’s an upbeat record, light rather than dark, and it aims to entertain, in keeping with what Bluebird would now be obliged to call its mission statement if it still existed. The songs sound as if they must be standards, and this is testimony to the quality of the songwriting. The best track for me is the title track, Morning Sun, which is so good that it really ought to become a standard, rather than just sounding like one. As sung by Braithwaite, with spare guitar accompaniment by Whiteley, it’s as good as a folk/blues song can get, simple and very moving. Leadbelly could have written it. If it doesn’t get deep into your skull, there’s something not quite right about you.
Fruteland Jackson – Tell Me What You Say
Fruteland Jackson spends a lot of his time going round schools in the Chicago area on the Blues In The Schools program, which involves taking blues music to kids and educating, inspiring and getting through to them via lessons with titles like Trading Handguns for Harmonicas. In addition to being a blues historian and teacher, he’s a damn fine act in his own right, as this CD shows.
Fruteland (damn fine name too) is interested in the world around him, rather than in only looking back. He’s most emphatically in the country blues tradition, but he doesn’t do the ‘canon’ (at least not on his records). He writes his own songs and he writes them about the world that’s in front of him. His previous CD, Blues 2.0 (2004), kicked off with the great and totally original title track, which presented his own song about the endless drudgery of working life for people whose jobs don’t come with an ‘attractive package’ as a genuine work song, a holler of the kind the Lomaxes were recording in penitentiaries in the 1930s and 40s. This new CD has plenty of his own take on how a lot of people live in this day and age. Not that this makes it some kind of college-type social commentary – it’s more that it’s the blues canon slightly updated for today.
There are songs on here about gambling, paying taxes, getting old(er) and about Fruteland’s grandfather’s life, among other themes explored in a nicely varied set. Fruteland’s singing voice has power, but he’s more of a crooner than a shouter – he has a light, fairly high-register, smooth sound. He plays high-standard acoustic guitar on most tracks and is joined by other musicians on some tracks, including Chris Whiteley on trumpet, harp and guitar and Julian Fauth (who made a very good album for the same label last year) on piano. The songs come in a variety of styles - straight blues, ragtime, countryish, gospel amongst others, and the first track is a cappella.
The top track for me, by some distance, is Blues Over Baghdad. It strikes me that this song is what the blues, or at any rate some of it, should be all about in this day and age. It takes the feel and soul of the blues both as a musical form and as an attitude and applies it to a modern topic that it most certainly belongs with. It’s not the kind of easy-to-write, lazy, trite bit of Bush-hating that artists in other fields come up with, it’s a deeply felt piece looking at the situation with empathy, humanity and regret. My guess is that if you were wrapped up in this conflict as a participant/victim, you’d feel that this song did justice to your suffering. Fruteland Jackson believes in the Blues. This song alone shows that he’s right to.