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CD Reviews - July 2007
Brownbird Rudy Relic - Anti-Stereo Acoustic Holler
Brownbird Rudy Relic - Anti-Stereo Acoustic Holler Blues
Taking his cues from well before the brits got hold of the blues, or indeed before it went electric, he pretty much captures a sound that has all but been eliminated from music as the recording process and technology have advanced. It has something of that indefinable sort thing - of what using a limited medium can bring to and enhance whatever is being expressed through it. I don't just mean crackles - that doesn't do it justice (we're not talking about breakfast cereals). It's what you'd lose from the old records if the crackles weren't there, if you get my meaning. Or if the mics and amps weren't being worked that bit too hard. That feel.
Anti Stereo Acoustic Holler Blues has a purely mono sound - the product of two vintage Shure Unidyne 55 mics mixed to a single track tape on an 1940s Ampex reel-to-reel. Good shit if you can get it, no doubt. Remember, low fidelity (Lo-Fi) does not necessarily mean cheap and nasty (Ch-Na), they are two quite distinct things. This then is Lo-Fi of the highest order. But Anti Stereo Acoustic Holler Blues wouldn't work if it was presented in any other way - to criticise the sound quality is to completely miss the point...
This is heart rending stuff delivered straight up - 'boom-chick' steel guitar and vocals, with the occasional razor burst of kazoo. The accompaniment is sparse, the most basic synchopation barely leaves enough space for the quite frightening trademark holler. It's a bit unsettling at first; it kind of rattles anything that isn't screwed down, including teeth and vertibrae. The blurb says 'emotive minimalism' but it doesn't say how loud that actually is.
There are no straight twelve bar progressions, just meticulously ragged melodic and structured songs or proto-Rn'B-come-hokum blues stomps. From Stranger Here Blues and Sepia Sheik through to My Wrists and the plainly awesome Give My Heart A Wash with it's fast woofing, rythmic vocals, this album is in no way revivalist of a bygone era or sound. It's more an independant evolution of prewar country blues; as if Charley Patton had glimpsed the future and seen it was Doo-Wop or something.
years ago this would have been radically ahead of it's time.
Grinderman - Grinderman
Crikey! Nick Cave's rockstar side project - think Gorillaz without the cartoons... or Damon... and good... actually it's nothing like Gorillaz at all... although there is a monkey on the cover... anyway, Ole' Nick's done learned to play the geetar and assembled some men with exuberant facial hair and put together a beautiful freak of a record dealing with what it is to be a man in these modern times, with fuzz and grunt and howl and twang aplenty. They pull it off with wit and style but also manage superior substance - the writing is right up there and it turns out that it's OK to actually know which end of the guitar to hold too, even with your punky attitude. What could so easily be a has-been vanity project is instead a triumphant reminder that men with guitars and a dream can change the world... er, well, can still make a bloody good record anyway. Playing the guitar and growing beards is cool again! Yay!
Hazmat Modine - Bahamut
If there really is anyone looking at this website who thinks that blues is just a tired old genre with standard line-ups and stale renditions of stock-guitar-solo-and-forced-singing pastiches, they should be made, with a kindly expression, to purchase this and listen to it all the way through. This album is quite unlike anything else you’re likely to hear for some time, and though there are more ingredients in it than you can shake several sticks at, it’s certainly a blues album in the widest sense of the term.
Hazmat Modine is the brainchild of diatonic and chromatic harmonica player and singer Wade Schuman, who wrote most of the 14 tracks. Another harmonica player, on both types, forms a double harmonica attack at the front of the band. They are accompanied by an extraordinary number of other musicians, playing an extraordinary range of instruments. The bass is supplied by a tuba, there’s plenty of trumpet and sax, there’s some resonator and Hawaiian guitar and there’s some tasteful and unobtrusive drumming. That’s pretty much the core band, but that’s just the start. There’s also claviola, cimbalom, lute guitar, zamponia and other wind and stringed instruments that probably don’t get a lot of calls for session work. And three tracks have the significant presence of a group of Tuvan (from part of Siberia) throat singers and musicians called Huun-Huur-Tu.
If this gives you the impression that it’s all a bit off the wall, that’s about right, but it isn’t weird and there is a difference between the two. The whole lot cooked together on the various tracks produces a highly original sound that’s too musical to be just weird. The various ingredients are mixed and matched with a wide variety of styles to produce something that sounds like it must have always been meant to be that way, not that it’s been pretentiously shoved together for novelty effect.
Wade Schuman and Randy Weinstein are certainly top-division harmonica players, and their virtuosity gets demonstrated throughout. Schuman’s a good strong singer too, with a variety of tone and a showman’s panache. He writes decent songs which, underneath the arrangements, are firmly in the blues vein, and into them he pours a vast range of influences. There are tracks with a reggae rhythm (but not a reggae sound); there’s some Eastern European influence, with polka-type rhythms; there’s some big band jazz in there; there’s some marching band, there’s some ragtime, there’s some Jewish klezmer and some Gypsy stuff; and there are some other things you’d probably have to be an ethnomusicologist to identify.
It’s all got an early 20th century atmosphere about it (and the booklet has black and white photos of all sorts of bands of all sorts of ethnic origin from what looks like that era playing all sorts of instruments - these bands are all labelled ‘Hazmat Modine’). Whatever the origins of the ingredients, they’re all fitted into a blues framework. So although this album would sit on the edge of your blues collection, it would have to go there if it went into any category.
The whole thing has clearly been put together with passion and there’s nothing at all messy about any of it. The horn sounds and arrangements are particularly tasty and the harmonica playing is sheer joy. Some of the more curious instrumentation is put to the service of the overall sound, rather than made to stick out to draw attention to a particular instrument. Schuman and his pals are travelling in uncharted territory here, and doing something new and interesting with ‘old’ music. This is to be encouraged.
If you’ve got a musical comfort zone, this is a good place to go for a trip out of it. Think of it this way: if you like blues music of any kind, and you were walking down the street and heard this coming out of a building or being played on a street corner, you would simply have to stop and check it out. You’d be thinking: ‘I have no idea what that is, but I think it’s got something to do with me.’
Footnote: I observe from their website that Hazmat Modine are on a European tour later this year, which takes in just about every country but Britain. Something needs to be done about this not uncommon situation.
John Hammond - Push
Comes to Shove
You can’t judge a book... John Hammond’s been around for a very long time. He started to make a name for himself in the early 60s folk/blues revival in the US, when he was one of the names in the New York and Boston coffee house scenes. He’s been making albums for around 45 years. And he may just be in the form of his life.
Anyone who’s seen him at his Jazz Café appearances in the last couple of years might well testify to that. He’s a distinguished-looking gentleman of the worn well (rather than well-worn) variety. He comes unassumingly on stage looking like an Ivy League professor about to listen encouragingly to his students’ views on the Great American Novel. He wears a pair of slacks and a smart shirt and he’s got an elegant head of shiny hair. He sits down, smiling genially, picks up an acoustic or a National that’s obviously also been around, and clips a harp into the rack. The uninitiated wait for an evening of gentle, soothing blues that will be pleasant and unchallenging. And then he tears the place up.
The guitar takes a pounding, but not a duff note is hit. The various harmonicas get sucked and blown with such force and abandon, especially at the high end, that you wonder whether a harmonica can in some way get worn out in one evening. And the voice comes bellowing out with such a howling and a hollering of pain and passion that some audience members actually take a step or two back, as if in the face of a giant hairdryer. He is completely inside each number. He didn’t write them (or most of them), they came from a list of the greats from the 20s to the 50s. And they make you wonder what, if this guy can deliver them so astonishingly, they must have sounded like when those guys did them live.
John Hammond’s made stacks of albums, but he seems to have hit a new stride recently. First of all he did Wicked Grin (2001), a collaboration with Tom Waits, comprising entirely Waits songs. It had a big sound and went down well. Then came Ready for Love (2003) and In Your Arms Again (2005), both done with a small band, and both being a good reflection of what he sounds like live and solo. The latter is a very strong album, and opens with a totally wild and frantic version of Blind Boy Fuller’s Jitterbug Swing that really sets the tone. Now comes this album, produced by G Love, which moves things on a bit further down the line.
Whereas some of his earlier albums, though pleasant enough, presented a watered down version of him and were worthy rather than thrilling, this one sounds intense and sweaty. The band are tight, and the atmosphere generated is edgy. The production is spot-on, with Hammond and the band sounding like a unit, not a singer and some backing musicians, and it’s also not too busy. On top, Hammond does his thing in just the way he always does his thing, and this time he’s got the back-up to turn that into an album that really does his thing justice. It all sounds like a set in a tightly packed bar full of people who’ve come to have their troubles sweated out of them by someone who can sing their pain for a while and get them on the dance floor for a while.
G Love’s notes in the booklet declare the record to be ‘raw, raunchy, rugged and relevant’ and ‘real low down blues’. This is all true. Hammond isn’t doing anything he hasn’t always been doing, in the sense that he’s not trying to fake something to appeal to ‘a younger generation’ of real or potential blues fans. He’s still doing his thing, but his thing’s getting better and better. What may be new is that someone’s come along who really gets what he does and knows how to put it into a thoroughly modern and full-on blues record.
John Hammond is 65, but most 25-year-olds would be carried out in an oxygen mask after about four numbers if they were doing his set. Son House was pretty good at this age and Hammond shares with him the trance-like immersion in the performance, the living of the song. Go see him at the Jazz Café on his annual only performance in London, get this album, and then cheer yourself up with just how good an old bloke can sound. He’s not in a museum or a home for genial old blues guys, and he’s made an album the 25-year-old in the oxygen mask could only dream of making.
William Clarke – The Early Years, volumes 1 and 2
was a giant of the West Coast blues harmonica, up there with Kim Wilson,
Mark Hummel, James Harman and Rick Estrin. And he swung more than any
of them, taking his cue as much from big band and organ trio jazz as
from Chicago and Texas blues. There’s plenty of swing
on these tracks, along with that big, fat tone, especially on the big
chromatic harmonica which became Bill’s trademark. He learned
his chops on that beast from George “Harmonica” Smith, the
acknowledged giant of chromatic blues harp, who guests on one track on
each CD. But look at the rest of the guest list too – Ronnie Earl,
Hollywood Fats and Rick Holmstrom on guitars, plus Mitch Kashmar blowing
second harp on the duet “Horn of Plenty”.
Available from the U.S. here
Muleskinner Jones - Alcohol Tobacco Raygun?
Listen & info www.myspace.com/muleskinnerjones
'Mr. Jones' Last Song' could, as far as I'm concerned, sit up at the top of the list of great album kick off songs, along with 'Gimme Shelter' and 'Brown Sugar'. "Everything I loved was up for sale, oh Lord, and I was scared of opening the mail...it's time to admit to everybody that you've failed, I know life sucks, I know it's kinda shit, but you won't move on if you don't know when to quit." Who on this planet can't identify that, and he wraps up the whole story in under a minute.
Jones takes almost strictly the American music influences of folk, country, blues, and rock'n'roll and pumps them out with a variety of extremely accented vocals. It's kinda pub rock meets Beefheart meets the drunken barroom side of Merle Haggard and David Allen Coe. The latter he perfects, in his very English way, with 'Drinking to get Drunk'. Lines like "My son thinks I'm a loser and my friends think I'm a drunk, but I'm not drinkin' to forget you, I'm just drinkin' to get drunk." Some might criticize the drunk/drunk rhyme but I think it's great, plus it's in plenty of old blues records for those who want to argue. 'Mr. Jones Skips Town' is just a great rockin' blues fed through a blender of Beefheart sung in that near Wreckless Eric vocal. It houses one of my favorite lines. "John, Paul, George and Ringo ain't got nuthin' on me." One of those I wish I'd written.
There is plenty of fun on this record but there is plenty of seriousness as well. 'Death in Dixie' and 'Blood and Muskets' deal, in a rather Nick Cave fashion, with the Civil War and the persecution of the American Indians. He seems to be obsessed with America and in love and hate with it at the same time. What better way to sell the Americans their own mistakes than through their own music. He does, however, admit that those early American persecutors were as much English at that time and that the blood is on everyone's hands.
My only complaint really is that the digital recording techniques get to be a bit much at times. Unlimited tracking can be a blessing and a curse. I agree with Bob Dylan's comments on digital recording. That being said, this album is great it's just that those of you who have a tick about digital recording might have to listen in half and half intervals. Come to think of it, much like 'Trout Mask Replica'. It might do you better to imagine if Nick Cave had recorded 'Bone Machine'. And this guy drops his own name in grand Jerry Lee fashion over and over again.