- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 10 June 2009
Junior Kimbrough â€¢ First Recordings â€¢ Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess
There are few popular recording artists that have their very own genre of music. I mean, you can probably count them on one hand. Tom Waits comes to mind. That's about it, really. There are probably others, but even someone like Neil Young can't be said to have his own genre. His music is instantly recognizable, and derivative of no one's work, but it's still rock and roll at the end of the day. Junior Kimbrough played the blues. But he didn't play the blues like anyone else played the blues. He played his own style of Hill Country Blues, and it varied so severely from his neighbors' styles that you could almost say he created something new. He created something new that sounds like it pre-dates time. It's a sound that's as complex as the region that spawned the artist. It's a place and a sound that time seems to have forgotten in a lot of ways.
Kimbrough was from the same area that gave us R.L. Burnside (see vinyl reviews for March 2009) and the two were both signed to Fat Possum Records for the last years of their lives. He ran his own club in Chulahoma, Mississippi that drew locals from all around the region to his Sunday night "jukes." Word got out, after a fashion, and he began to draw patrons from a little further out. Kimbrough found himself playing host to guests with names like "Bono" and "Iggy." (Both men give hilarious accounts of spending time at Junior's in the documentary, "You See Me Laughin': The Last Of The Hill Country Blues Men." There's plenty of Burnside footage too, and the film is rental-ready at Netflix. Queue it up, people.) Kimbrough played the royalty in this production, and he didn't know Bono from Adam's house cat. No one trumped Kimbrough's influence in this setting, and we all run out of superlatives with regards to his sound. It's timeless, dirty, dangerous, sexual, sweaty, scary, beautiful...
The folks at Fat Possum recently gave us a glimpse into Kimbrough's creative process by releasing his "First Recordings." It's available on 10" vinyl, and it's a fascinating document if not essential listening. The recordings were made in a Memphis studio in 1966. They're cleaner and more structured than Kimbrough's later work. Somehow, this seems fitting. Kimbrough's trajectory took him from structure to chaos which is the exact opposite of how things work for most of us. These songs sound polished next to songs from later works like "Most Things Haven't Worked Out," but I bet they sounded primitive to the few folks that heard them in the late '60's. Even Kimbrough's guitar tone is less menacing than what it would become. The song structures seem forced, like trying to fit a square note in a round hole. There's nothing square about this music, and its inherent delinquency won in the end. Die-hard Kimbrough fans are going to want to hear this one, but I would recommend any of his later Fat Possum works to those in need of an introduction. The man was a true American cultural treasure, and he has references from a heady list of famous supporters. Check it out. You should have already.
TV On The Radio â€¢ Dear Science â€¢ Interscope Records
I'm a music snob. Legendarily so, in fact. People often accuse me of not liking music at all which is entirely false. I spend the better part of my time listening to and searching for new music. I spend the better part of my paycheck on concert tickets and records. To suggest that I don't like music is to suggest that I'm crazy in light of these facts. I don't think I'm crazy. I think I'm discerning. I have a filter that prevents me from having to hear bands that saturate the airwaves with the same boring, gimmicky music that is so popular these days. It rejects most new hip-hop, and all hot new country. (I love good hip-hop, and I love true country music.) I keep my filter set on high in the unlikely event that a Jonas Brothers or Maroon 5 song might penetrate my ear canal. This serves me well, but every once in a while my filter weeds out a good one too. This, until recently, was the case with TV On The Radio. Luckily, I went back for their newest release, "Dear Science," and it's been a struggle for me to listen to anything else ever since.
I was truly blown away on the first listen from the first song through the last. I don't mean to make it sound like more than it is, but this is an important record for me. It's an unbelievable mixture of organic instrumentation and synthesized sounds. There seems to be some heavy lyrical subject matter, but the music always draws my attention away from the words so I can't tell you about any specific messages or meanings. (The lyrics are printed in the liner notes for the more studious amongst us.) "Dear Science" defies categorization. In fact, it exposes categorization for the sham that it is. The music rocks and swings and attacks and releases. I realized that I'd been hearing some of the songs at the gym for quite some time. This taught me that there are even some good songs to be heard at the gym if you can separate them from the hordes of horrible songs that you are accustomed to hearing there. That's what I mean when I say this album is important to me. I've actually learned something from it.
"Halfway Home" kicks off the first side in high style with a driving mix of sounds and textures that struggle to a crescendo and then break free before bringing the listener "home." "Crying" is a danceable number that may remind you of Andre' 3000's work on "The Love Below." "Golden Age" is one of the gym songs I referenced earlier so you can assume that it's another high-energy number that's easy to move to though certainly not what you would expect for traditional "gym music." The vinyl presentation is worthy of merit as well. It's a four-sided affair on two heavy records in a gatefold package with a CD of the whole album so you can take it with you wherever you go. And you're going to want to have access to this one wherever you are if you're anything like me. There are songs and sounds for every occasion. You've got horns ("Red Dress") and strings ("Family Tree") and beats all around. I could go down the song list to point out what defines each because they're all great, but my advice would be to go get this one if you haven't already. I might be last in the pool as it is. I'll blame my trusty filter for that. It was only trying to help.
Bob Dylan â€¢ Together Through Life â€¢ Columbia Records
A few years ago, Bob Dylan adopted the look of a distinguished Spanish gentleman. Pencil thin mustache, hat, boots, suit & all. On his latest offering, "Together Through Life," the sound caught up with him. David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) plays accordion on most songs, lending a Tex-Mex flavor to the entire record. I've heard people reference Texas legend Doug Sahm with regards to the sound, but I don't really see it. To me, it still sounds like Dylan with an accordion.
The Bard assembled an interesting cast of cohorts on "Together." Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fame) handles the guitar work on this one along with Hidalgo and multi-instrumentalist Danny Herron. Dylan's long-time touring rhythm section (Tony Garnier on bass and George Recille on drums) anchor the proceedings admirably. Basically, if you liked the last two Dylan records, you'll really like this one. Dylan produces again (as Jack Frost, naturally), and he doesn't seem too interested in throwing us any curves at this late stage of the game. If you're paying attention, you'll notice that he's relying more and more on traditional blues progressions these days. This is a practice that has been in place since "Love and Theft" which is when he took over the production reins full time on his own. The blues influence seems stronger with every new release, and "Together" features a note-for-note cover of "I Just Want To Make Love To You" by Muddy Waters. Of course, Dylan adds new lyrics, and calls it "My Wife's Home Town." (He credits Muddy as co-writer.) The music sounds great, but I actually think the old man misfires lyrically on this one ("I just want to say that hell's my wife's home town"). I can't believe I'm criticizing Bob Dylan's lyrics, but I have to honor my own opinion, and I have a scapegoat too. Robert Hunter, who worked as the Grateful Dead's lyricist for the bulk of their career, co-writes all but one song on this one. I blame Hunter for "Home Town" and the album's last tune "It's All Good." The latter offering is a tongue-in-cheek observation of our current state of affairs with the title's refrain as the sarcastic lyrical punchline. I see what he's going for (he even laughs out loud on record to clue in the clueless), but I still can't handle hearing the Bard regurgitating such an overused, played out phrase that's been around for longer than I care to remember.As for the actual records: the two disc set is pressed on 180-gram high quality vinyl with very little surface noise. They're housed in heavy inner sleeves that, unfortunately, have no plastic or rice paper lining so they will need to be replaced if the vinyl is to maintain its integrity. This is a drag because the two discs are packaged in a single outer sleeve (i.e. there is no gatefold). My outer sleeve is already starting to split because I have the discs in Mobile Fidelity inner sleeves and I keep the original inner sleeves as well for the artwork and liner notes. This might not be an issue for some listeners, but it's very definitely an issue for completists like me that want to keep their records clean and free of paper scuffs. The records come with a CD of the entire offering as well. Overall, it's a nice package from the folks at Columbia and a more than solid offering from Dylan. He hasn't exactly re-invented the wheel, but he didn't really need to. He's already done that anyway...
My Morning Jacket â€¢ CelebraciÃ³n De La Ciudad Natal â€¢ ATO Records
It's official: Record Store Day is the new Christmas for vinyl enthusiasts. April 18, 2009 was the second annual celebration of the independent record outlet, and this one was a smashing success. Many artists - including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, & Tom Waits - released titles that could not be found at Best Buys or Wal-Marts or online. You had to actually go to a local record store on the specified day, sift through the special Record Store Day bins, and purchase your selections from a record store clerk. Just like in the movies...
My Morning Jacket had the most intriguing release of the day for my money with "CelebraciÃ³n De La Ciudad Natal" on double 10" vinyl. Some of the songs on "CelebraciÃ³n" were recorded live at Ear-X-Tacy (a local record store) in the band's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The rest were recorded live at Louisville's Waterfront Park. It's a nice mix of older and newer material with one semi-rarity ("Where To Begin" from the "Elizabethtown" soundtrack) for good measure. It's also our first chance to hear lead singer Jim James do his falsetto tricks on the newer, funkier material on an official live release. He doesn't disappoint because that's not what this guy does. The versions of "Evil Urges" and "Highly Suspicious" would have made an awesome 7" on their own. I might have preferred some more offerings from their latest studio album since we already had live versions of "Gideon" and "Dondante" from "Okonokos" (2006), but I'm not complaining. I would have bought this one for the packaging and format alone, and I can't get enough of the tension and release that makes "Dondante" so epic anyway. There's also an untitled "Record Store Day Rap" from the Ear-X-Tacy show in which James laments the homogenization of the world that the band has witnessed in its travels. I couldn't agree with him more & I see Record Store Day as a celebration of unique local business more so than another excuse to shop for vinyl.
This one was a limited release, but I could never figure out how many were printed. You're going to want to act fast if you want a copy of this one on vinyl, and they're still being offered for reasonable prices at online auction sites. You can download the songs from an independent retailer via the band's website, but that obviously won't measure up to the vinyl experience. I would encourage you to keep your antennas up for next year's Record Store Day if you missed this year's version. It's an awesome idea and the folks in charge have about three more seasons to prepare for the next one. You can get more info at recordstoreday.com in the meantime. I probably won't sleep a wink on the night before next year's. Just like Christmas...
Mike Bloomfield â€¢ I'm Cutting Out â€¢ Sundazed Records
I'd been listening to Mike Bloomfield light up his fretboard for years before I knew him by name. Bloomfield was the primary offender, as lead guitarist, during Bob Dylan's first electric performance at the Newport Jazz and Folk Festival in 1965. Dylan's short set alienated much of the Newport crowd and some of his peers too. (The legendary Pete Seeger, who just celebrated his 90th birthday, allegedly tried to cut the stage's power supply with an axe during Dylan's three-song show.) Dylan later released "Highway 61 Revisited" with Bloomfield playing lead on such classics as "Like A Rolling Stone," and "Tombstone Blues" in addition to that album's title track. Thus, Bloomfield was already a major player in my musical education even if I didn't know it at the time. Fast forward to 2009: I'm reading a Dylan interview in support of his newest release and he's still talking about Bloomfield as one of his favorite guitarists after all these years. So I picked up Bloomfield's "I'm Cutting Out" (in addition to Dylan's latest) to see how his playing stood on its own without the weight of Dylan's legend to support him. The verdict is in, and this guy could play!
I don't know why these recordings never saw the light of day until now. They were made around the same time that Bloomfield and Dylan were drawing the ire of folk purists everywhere. They're not necessarily "essential," but they're every bit as good as most of the blues-rock recordings that white folks were releasing at the time. Bloomfield's vocals are wholly unremarkable, but they're not embarrassing either. His playing is exemplary, and leads you to believe that he could have played authentic Delta blues had he wanted. That obviously wasn't selling at the time, and it took a bunch of youths from across the pond to give us back one of our most enduring and defining cultural legacies. White Teenage America was mostly unaware of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf until Mick and Keith (and Brian) pulled back the curtains and gave those guys some exposure (and royalty checks) in the mid-1960's. By then, Bloomfield had already played onstage with most of the Chicago greats so why haven't we heard more about him? The recordings on "I'm Cutting Out" are totally in line with what was happening at the time. The formula was relatively new, but immensely popular. The standard procedure was to unveil an obscure blues cover, to speed up the tempo, and to call it rock and roll. As such, this is a fine document of the era. Bloomfield's take(s) on "I Got My Mojo Working" could have been a regional hit if not a national one. The market wasn't saturated with this type of faire yet so I have to assume that Columbia was discontent with something on the recording. Perhaps it was the production which is of the "garage rock" variety. It certainly couldn't have been the playing - that much is for certain. If you like vintage blue-eyed rock and blues music, then this set will not disappoint.
Ultimately, we have the folks at Sundazed Records to thank for this one. They seem to have the utmost respect for the vinyl medium and killer taste in music too. I always check to see what they're putting out. Many of their releases are in mono, but this one's mixed in stereo. The vinyl is clean and heavy, but it's packed in a standard paper sleeve and the set didn't come with a download coupon or a CD. I wish they'd work on that, but I appreciate their efforts in unearthing this little gem. It's not one that I'm going to listen to everyday, but it's one I'll listen to for a long time, and I'm looking forward to it.