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CD Reviews - March 2008
Ali Farke Touré - Savanne >>
Ali Farke Touré - Savanne (World Circuit)
It's said that when this Malian musician first heard American blues music he asked who were these people who played as he did but in a different language. Many years, and albums, later, including one with Ry Cooder - 'Talking Timbukto' which helped bring Touré, and arguably 'World Music' (a patronising term if ever there was one) to a global audience, 'Savanne' is his last, released shortly after his death last year from cancer.
"King of The desert Blues Singers" is says on the beautifully put together sleeve, and the implication is clear - that here is a musician as significant in his way as Robert Johnson - that, like Johnson, Farke Touré took a traditional music and made it his own, re-invigorating it and bringing it, ultimately, to a much wider audience.
For anyone with even a passing knowledge of American blues Farke Touré's music is familiar, yet strange; the feeling is there, but the form can be difficult to grasp. Grasping the form though is for academics and all you really need to know is that this is a gorgeous sounding record. Farke Tourés voice has majestic prescence and his playing demonstrates extraordinary invention and virtuosity. The songs flow with a sense of space and timelessness which it's tempting to think might have something to do with their desert origins, but I'm no exeprt in this music and that might just be romantic clichéd nonsense, the kind of which is all too often spouted about American blues.
What I will say though is that ther is a lot here for the blues fan. The feel, the heart and soul of this record, resonates deeply with the sound of those records that got me into blues. As if to underline the point, it's even got bluesinlondon favourite Little George Sueref playing harp on a few tracks, and very effective he is too.
You might not think 'World' music is for you, but I'd urge you to think again. This is a beautiful soulful record, made by a master at the hight of his game, which demonstrates that the bonds that tie us are far greater than those differences which keep us apart
Tinariwen - Aman Iman (Water is Life) (Independente)
More desert blues, this time from former rebels whose musical genesis was intertwined with the Touareg struggle for independence and set against a backdrop of civil war. But that's enough potted history culled from the web - (only the highest journalistic standards here at BiL!) and the last thing music as good as this needs is patronising exoticism; there's far too much of that in blues, as it is - "Wow! He went to prison!! For murder!!! He must be BRILLIANT!!!!" - not to mention world music.
"There are plenty of bands who know how to rock, but very few who know how to roll. Tinariwen are the masters of roll 'n' roll."
Well yes, quite, Andy. And he's got a point. All you really need to know is that this is a great record. It's got a fantastic flowing, hypnotic groove throughout that resonates with that trance blues thing which some of the best of the Fat Possum artists brought back to currency. It really does roll and roll; complex rhythms setting up a vibe that provides a perfect setting for undulating and powerful electric guitar, and songs that lose nothing for being in a language you don't understand. Mind you, one of the members of Tinariwen is a leading poet of the Tamashek language, so lyrically they're probably pretty good too, if you fancy learning the lingo.
Blues connections run through the whole thing and, although this is certainly North African in it's feel, once again there is much for the blues fan to get into. Soul, groove, intensity, beauty, great guitars, cool turbans! What more do you want?
Mitch Kashmar - Wake Up and Worry (Delta Groove)
Kashmar sets his stall out right from the start with an opener that owes much to the storming West Coast Swing of William Clarke. The Willie Dixon/Little Walter 'Dead Presidents' follows, on which we're given harp playing in fine Sonny Boy Williamson (II) style. "You Dogged Me" demonstrates Mitch's ability to do that Jimmy Reed high-end-of-the-harp thing, and the're even some JJ Milteau-esque jazz groove malarky on "Funky Dee".
So far, so much "Hey everybody, check out my harmonica chops" and there's no doubt that Mitch does indeed have some pretty sharp skills on the gob-iron, but he's put together a record that is so much more than a collection of opportunities to show off. The album works as a whole and, like label mate Lynwood Slim's recent 'Last Orders', it has depth and injects a bit of wit and style into the proceedings. Mitch is a fine singer and fine judge of musical character. There's a wide range of grooves, rhythms and vibes demonstrated here that make this a very listenable album, and not just one for the harp afficionadoes.
Delta Groove really do seem to be pulling it out of the bag on a regular basis, producing records that are consistently good, and innovative, enough to raise them above 'niche'. Mitch's is a fine addition to their catalogue.
The Great Debaters - Original Soundtrack
The pairing of music with film is older than film dialogue itself, especially poorly-written exposition masquerading as film dialogue. Even the silentist silent movies had raging ragtime piano solos throughout and being a picture house pianist was apparently nice work if you could get it and your wrists could take the strain. Music has always accompanied film, usually for the better, since the birth of cinema. Where would we be without the musical training montage, the musical getting-to-know-each-other-via-slapstick montage, or the potter's wheel scene in Ghost? Eh?
In this case the term Various Artists is grossly misapplied to those featured here. It should say 'Excellent Artists'. Containing original and 'original' material as well as traditional songs by Alvin Youngblood Hart, Sharon Jones (normally followed by '...and The Dap Kings'), Teenie Hodges, and a range of accompanyists such as The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Billy Rivers & The Angelic Voices of Faith, this is probably not well known about in the UK and is unlikely to be promoted very much at all. Indeed, I leanred of its existence only after Alvin Hart's recent interview on Paul Jones' BBC Radio show in November.
Hellhounds - Halfway Between Somewhere And Nowhere (Deltabilly Music)
Strewth! 90mph whiskey soaked slide driven mayhem. Motorcycle noises! Rockin' boogie! Dirty harp! Chaps you wouldn't like to get into a fight with!! It's the sort of thing that's done badly in bars the world over and which can give blues a bad name, but somehow these fellers get away with it and, unreconstructed though it is, they've made a pretty decent record.
Songs about crack - it's whack, apparently... Songs about tuna - they like it... blackened... Songs about devil women - one taste of poison and you're going down! There's even a Jack Johnsoney/Ben Harpery track - 'Everything' - "it's nothing... naked in the wind" they tell us, somewhat inexplicably. Then the whole thing's rounded off with a hidden track of ethereal snoring. Genius! It's all about as subtle as a 6ft length of scaffolding in the teeth but, well, sometimes that's no bad thing.
John-Alex Mason – Town and Country (Naked Jaybird Music)
This is the guy’s fifth CD, and he has gone for a very un-complicated sound that is said to reflect his live shows. Alex is currently in the finals of the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Competition, and takes the stage at the International Folk Alliance Conference both in Memphis. His biog extols his deep passion for blues, big named shared stages and serious plaudits.
Deep stomping traditional grooves from a young blonde who has connected in a big way to old country Blues. Stark stripped back old country Blues and Mississippi hill country electric juke Blues, but from a young white kid with an unerring feel for a music played well before he was born.
Fiona Boyes & The Fortune Tellers - Lucky 13 (Yellow Dog Records)
Fiona is an artist who like Zac Harmon has consolidated her Blues foundation IBC win. A move to the states to capitalise on her press seems to be paying dividends, like fellow Aussie Geoff Achison. In fact as she progresses her nationality becomes less important as Ana Popovic is proving also. Fiona has heartedly come up with most of the compositions in a traditional framework. The songs vary from mostly the female brash & bawdy, and relationships in both acoustic and electric settings. Fiona mixes it up well from Chicago to swing to rock ’n’ roll, with a voice that encompasses many of the better raunchy female Blues singers. There is a nice mix of ensembles/instruments on board, with Kaz Kazanoff producing this Austin, Texas recording. Bob Margolin who has raved about Fiona in Blues Revue magazine guests along with Marcia Ball and the Texas Horns – nice to see Floyd Domino &and Riley Osbourne on here too. On the mark sleeve notes by the re-known scribe Art Tipaldi, fill in gaps in your education/pointers. This is a solid, and punchy release from Fiona Boyes.
Watermelon Slim – The Wheel Man
I guess if a lot of blues fans are really honest, they have to admit that they particularly like an artist to have an interesting, and preferably ‘authentic’ back story. There’s no reason on earth why a well brought up, college-educated, middle-class person can’t make impassioned, moving or incendiary blues music, but on the whole blues aficionados are very keen on a tough, rough, unprivileged background for their favourite performers.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with all this. It’s not so much that it’s born of some silly notion of stereotypes, it’s because the music is coming from a particular part of the human experience and the human spirit, because it’s in a sense ‘pure’, and artifice simply won’t do. Blues people shouldn’t be faking it, and if they are faking it they won’t be very good and they won’t fool anyone.
That’s not to say that you have to have a lot of poverty or a lack of education on your CV to qualify as a genuine blues artist. People from any background can have the blues spirit and express it in a genuine way. But the blues is not an intellectual thing, it’s a soul thing, and so audiences will tend to trust someone who’s struggled through life and have no choice but to sing the blues more than someone who has made, from a more fortunate position, the choice to do it.
Now Watermelon Slim has a very good back story for a blues artist. Real name Bill Homans, he did a tour of duty in Vietnam that ended in 1970. Following that, he made an anti-war album in 1973. From then on he was mostly a truck driver, though he was also a watermelon farmer (hence the name). But while he was doing those jobs, he got degrees in history and journalism and became a member of MENSA. So in a way he’s a kind of hybrid in terms of the authenticity back story thing – part working-class hero, part intellectual. This isn’t just a clever dick observation, it’s hugely relevant to his music, because both those elements are there.
Slim formed a blues band in the late 90s, and following a heart attack, he got seriously into music as a career. His first album, Big Shoes To Fill, came out in 2003. In 2004, he released the splendid, solo acoustic Up Close & Personal, a wonderful collection of mostly self-written blues songs, predominantly from a working class perspective, with quite a bit of ranting and a couple of great field holler type unaccompanied tunes. 2006 saw him in full band mode, releasing Watermelon Slim & The Workers on the Canadian Northern Blues label. This wonderful album had a fine, big but non-slick production, a slew of what were by now trademark Slim compositions and a really good band sound, all fronted by Slim’s powerful front-man presence. Now we have The Wheel Man, which is basically more of the same, and an equally excellent album.
A good many of Slim’s own songs are about the life of the working man, and he’s not talking about coffee machines, appraisals, line managers or pension plans. He’s talking about the lives of what is generally known as the working class. Specifically, he frequently returns to his former life as a truck driver for the subject matter of his songs. This is the territory of the title track, which kicks off the CD and of Truck Driving Mama. Elsewhere, he looks at the world of the gambler in Fast Eddie, life working in a sawmill, another of his previous occupations, in Sawmill Holler, and what it’s like to be a poor flood victim in the presumably Katrina-inspired Black Water, with its dig that ‘the pols in Washington don’t care about us poor boys down here’.
But Slim’s ‘other life’ is well represented too, both in the subject matter and lyrical content of the tracks. Drinking & Driving, for example, has a clever lyrical conceit that you wouldn’t expect from the title – it’s a simple enough song but it’s a clever idea that most people writing blues material wouldn’t come up with. In Newspaper Reporter, he laments that he got a job as one but was told he couldn’t drink, and then moves on to a statement of his attitude to being a bluesman – ‘I don’t tolerate no fakes’. Songs like I’ve Got News, with its call and response chorus, stick out from the crowd of songs by other artists these days – they’re well-crafted, well-written songs in the blues idiom that are very memorable, not just anonymous, could-be-by-anyone fare.
The music is mostly rollicking, good-time, full-on electric blues. It isn’t really blues-rock, there aren’t any long guitar solos, just short, tight, well worked-out ones, including by Magic Slim on the title track. On tracks such as this one, I Know One, Rattlesnake and Fast Eddie, we’re in fast boogie territory with tasty lead guitar breaks. Black Water, Peaches and the cover of Slim Harpo’s Got Love If You Want It, are fine examples of swamp blues, which Slim and his band excel at, the latter doing full justice to Slim Harpo’s signature rhythm. And tracks such as I’ve Got News and Newspaper Reporter see Slim’s excellent harp playing and the top-class piano of David Maxwell, one of the best in the business (last seen here fronting the band for Hubert Sumlin), to the fore.
We knew Slim was a top-quality acoustic bluesman too from his earlier work, and here that part of him is well represented by a terrific updating of Furry Lewis’s great song Judge Harsh Blues (sometimes known as Good Morning Judge). Slim does this solo, on slide dobro, and the lyrics now refer to the IRS and the war in Iraq, as well as taking inflation into account for the sum now required to get the singer out of jail. Another of Slim’s trademark numbers is the unaccompanied holler, represented here by Sawmill Holler, a running commentary on the work, and the story of a preacher, Jimmy Bell, sees him accompanied only by his own harp playing.
Slim’s voice is singular thing. It sounds like the voice of a man with a mouthful of gums and not a whole heap of teeth. It’s a ‘here’s what I am’ voice, not the voice of someone trying to sound like he thinks a blues singer should. Slim always sounds like someone who’s being himself. It’s a white man’s voice too, not contorted in an attempt to sound black. He doesn’t sing like anyone else, and he probably couldn’t even if he wanted to – one of the definitions of a good blues singer.
The band’s of the highest quality, too, and Slim appears to have found people of a variety of ages judging from the pictures, who get exactly what he’s doing and can help him deliver it just right to the audience. They’re very tight, but not just competently so – they’ve got an edge and they pack a punch. Production’s a crucial issue when a blues artist is moving up a notch or two, from utter obscurity on a home-made or tiny label to established labels with a bit more money to devote to the project. It can go either way, and sadly it sometimes goes the wrong way, with the initial freshness and originality lost in a sludge of over-production that takes the excitement out and substitutes it with the workaday, a big sound mistaken for a good one. That hasn’t happened to Slim. He’s got a big sound, for sure, but it’s a good one and it suits him, because he’s kept his roughness, so now it’s a kind of well-recorded roughness that comes tearing out of the speakers at you.
Watermelon Slim is ‘a character’ and that’s likely to stand him in good stead as he goes along. He’s attracting more and more attention and winning awards all over the place. Like Seasick Steve, he’s ‘up and coming’ way past the age when many people have been and gone. And like Seasick, I get the impression that he’s a smart bloke, happy to play up what appears to be a self-conscious ‘authenticity’, and very knowing about what’s going on here. Well, that’s fine, because just like Seasick he’s a damn fine bluesman with something very striking to offer. He ‘don’t tolerate no fakes’ and he ain’t no fake. Knowing you’re the ‘real deal’ doesn’t disqualify you from being the real deal.
Stuart Turner - A Gallon Of Water Makes A Mile Of Fog
Words you couldn’t use about this include ‘bland’ and ‘derivative’. It’s safe to say that this album will have an effect on you. Its impact is to pin the listener back against the nearest wall, rather like Alex Ferguson’s legendary ‘hairdryer’ in the Manchester United dressing room.
Stu's telling you things about the world he sees around him, the world he’s in, and it’s not a very comfortable world. He can sniff out the seedy and the painful side of life and he roars about it with the kind of full-on, rasping, throaty tone that most people only attain when they’re very, very, very angry. Actually, he isn’t so much angry as pained, but whatever the feeling, he isn’t trying to make you feel comfortable.
What Stuart is doing is recognizable as his own take on blues and folk music, in the loosest sense of those terms. There are proper songs here, not random, unstructured yellings, and they’re decent songs too. He tells tales of people, experiences, observations and places in his own world, delivering them to the listener with his blistering vocal style, but it’s often delivering melodic, even sometimes catchy, numbers. So his album is a combination of manic and straight, though the manic is to the fore.
The songs are varied in style and tempo. Some feature percussion, but this word isn’t really the right one to describe the banging that’s going on. It sounds as if it’s created by metal on metal, and it’s actually very effective, giving a lift and an edge to the tracks it features on. One track is piano and vocal, some are electric guitar and vocal, and there are various short instrumental interludes between tracks, but the majority of the album is acoustic guitar and vocal. There are references to obscene graffiti, vomit and unromantic relationships, and phrases such as ‘smells the toilet’, ‘the village bike’, ‘schoolkids who travel in packs’, ‘trying to find a way to keep me in fags’ and ‘in a puddle of my own piss’ give you a flavour of the world Stuart Turner is on about.
A few things that stood out for me: ‘What’s it got to do with me’, ‘Murder on Gaslight Street’ and ‘Deptford Lives’, fine songs in which Stuart’s observational lyrics are allied to strong tunes with memorable choruses; ‘We need to talk’ and ‘Breaking bottles’, which feature some very nice straight blues guitar playing; the slightly twisted misery/lechery of the written-on-a-pub-beermat ‘Serendipity’; the crazed but oddly catchy piano track ‘The truth about Charlie’; and the final track ‘Ballad of the gliding swan’ in which Stuart hints at the potential of marrying his individual style with some more traditional-type material.
A couple of reservations, not intended to put you off. The album is 64 minutes long, and with the intensity and volume of the vocal sound, this listener found it a long journey, more or less all of it just you and one other person. Cut by about a third, the journey would have been more memorable, and the songs would have had more impact individually. And secondly, that voice gives you a bit of a battering, as it’s doubtless intended to do. After a while this listener began to hope for some light and shade - there is a danger of the voice getting in the way of the emotion rather than expressing it, after a while.
Nevertheless, this is a record packed full of ideas, and they’re not your run-of-the-mill ideas either. Stuart Turner certainly has his own take on things, and he’s not like anyone else. He’s not an inward looking singer/songwriter, he’s pointing out at you and facing you with his world. For him, the blues is a constant point of reference that much of the material springs from, but he’s doing something individual with it. Something that struck me as I listened was that this big voice might well be suited to fronting a full band, and certainly some of the rockier material sounded as if it would come over very well with a tight but raucous band.
Stuart urrently operates mostly in the Kent area, but he frequently does gigs in London, and you should check him out if you can. And check out this CD – you might be in on the beginning of someone who attracts more and more attention as time goes by.