Sunday, 28 November 2021

Hoodoo Man Blues - Junior Wells


Provenance: I'm still chugging through my Toronto thrift store purchases.

Review: As a long-time blues aficionado this album should be catnip, putting the spotlight on estimable harmonica-jockey Junior Wells, and featuring my close relative Buddy Guy as a sideman.

I have had more than one friend complain that blues music doesn't feature enough variety to hold the attention, and I can grok that. Formally, most blues music (with notable exceptions) follows a few set templates in terms of chord progressions, scales and even subject matter. How many times have you heard trains a-rollin' or a woman stepping out on her man?

That being the case, I think one of the keys to creating memorable blues music is the way you play the damn thing. Muddy Waters imbued his with an irresistibly sly boastfulness, Freddie King aimed for the bleachers with buzzsaw guitar soloing and Howlin' Wolf sounded like a one-man demolition team; seriously, his opening cry to 'Smokestack Lightning' sounds like a cave-in at a coal mine. Like any pursuit with a set of rules to be observed, the joy can be found in the manner with which the game is played, or subverted. 

So now we come to Hoodoo Man Blues, the first solo album credited to Junior Wells. Already a veteran sideman, having replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters' band in the 1950s, Wells assembled a crack band in an attempt to recreate the hot sound of an electric Chicago blues band. In doing so, he birthed a masterpiece, echoes of which could be heard in popular music for decades to come.

Firstly, it must be said that Wells is not the greatest vocalist around; he's probably not even the best singer in the band (that accolade, aka 'The Michael Anthony Award', going to Buddy Guy); but he was no slouch on the blues harp. It's a testament to the supreme level of musicianship that the whole confection was recorded in two days, and that takes into account amplifier issues that led Guy to playing some of his guitar parts through a Leslie organ speaker. Can you imagine that happening today? Ain't it wild that some bands, not too further down the line, would spend a week in the studio trying to capture a decent snare sound only to release a load of old pony?

As a consequence, Hoodoo Man Blues has an electrifying live sound to it. Stylistically it treads the fine line between sophisticated and tough (like the best Chicago blues does), Guy's lacework guitar sparking against Wells' rough-house harmonica. Which, by the way, isn't to say that Guy couldn't land a few stingers himself; a couple of his licks in 'Hoodoo Man Blues' and 'We're Ready' are as sharp and clean as a wet shave from a Turkish barber. I think it needs to be emphasised just how good the playing is here; pocket drumming, locked-in bass and guitar work that possesses the neatness of prestidigitation. 

So how influential was this joint? The ripples can be heard in acts like The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Rory Gallagher, early J Geils Band and, especially to my set of lugholes, Dr Feelgood. The combination of lean orchestration, musical adroitness and aggression would solidify (and perhaps, falter) in the blues-rock sound of the late 1960s into the 1970s; a good example is Ten Years After's supersonic take-off of the Wells' band's version of 'Good Morning Schoolgirl', which booms with a proto-metal heaviness but also contains the seeds of self-indulgence that would lead to dead-ends and sclerosis. None of that is evident on Hoodoo Man Blues - a smoky, punchy, vital testament.

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Best Of The Stray Cats: Rock This Town - Stray Cats


Provenance: Yet another from my Toronto haul. Never been a huge fan of Stray Cats but this was cheap and I'm partial to a little rockabilly now and then.

Review: Stray Cats fall into that weird category of purist revivalist music that saw acts like Sha Na Na and Showaddywaddy gain footholds in the culture at various times, despite no real explanation for it. True, the 1980s did see some of the OG rock 'n' rollers hit chart gold as their music was exhumed for movies and adverts; am I underestimating the power of nostalgia?

Unlike their near contemporaries The Cramps, Stray Cats play it straight. Which, on the one hand, is admirable, but on the other makes for a fairly monochrome listening experience. The vast majority of the tracks on Best of... are built from a foundation of bass, drums and guitar; I almost punched the air when, two-thirds of the way through, I heard a fucking saxophone. Oh, and Slim Jim Phantom (top tier name by the way) plays a drum kit consisting of snare, bass, hi-hat and crash cymbal, a minimalist approach that no doubt played well to the greasers and ensured no Neil Peart style histrionics.

This short, ten track compilation kicks off with the Stray Cats' most recognisable, and arguably best, song, 'Rock This Town', which is a genuine shack-shaker that makes all the right moves. The next track though - '(She's) Sexy & 17' (gender in parentheses, presumably so nobody gets the wrong idea) is a little noncey, in a Chucky Lee Byrd way. Also, two tracks in and I'm bored of Brian Setzer's weedy voice. I'm almost bored by his guitar playing, which trades creativity for period fidelity. Luckily, numero tres is a great doo-wop number called 'I Won't Stand In Your Way', which reveals that Setzer is much better playing the sap than the tough.

A shame, then, that a chunk of the Stray Cats oeuvre which appears here is predicated on them being a bunch of flick-knife wielding alley bruisers. Setzer's lapdog yelp doesn't cut it on 'Stray Cat Strut' or 'Rumble In Brighton', not even when backed up by his two goons, who look like they have acromegaly or rickets or perhaps both. 

The collection reaches a nadir on 'Gene & Eddie' (that's Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane to you plebeians), a song that both quotes from and utterly mangles the work of those two doomed genii. It's the kind of concept I tend to despise, with the exception of ABC's 'When Smokey Sings' and maybe Nils Lofgren's 'Keith Don't Go' (depending on which way the wind is blowing at the time). Both hagiographic and tautological, just once I'd like one of these 'tribute' songs to give their subject a proper shoeing. Actually, Stray Cats shouldn't have bothered at all, considering that a few years beforehand, Ian Dury & the Blockheads had produced the far superior 'Sweet Gene Vincent', which deals with the legend in a much more interesting and playful way.

There's not a huge amount that's wrong with this, especially if you like wearing leather jackets, fashioning your hair like a duck's arse and pretending that slapback echo is the pinnacle of music production. Sure, at one point they nick a line from a Lazy Lester tune, but that's the business. Sometimes Lee Rocker walks up the neck of his upright bass, sometimes down it. Slim Jim speeds it up and slows it down. Brian Setzer plays his Cliff Gallup and Scotty Moore riffs with aplomb. The Best of... is a slick, adroit bit of graverobbing, which has its moments but is too in thrall to rock 'n' roll's golden age to be more than a curio.

Sunday, 7 November 2021

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! - Devo


Provenance: Another one from my Toronto haul. But I've long had a liking for Devo, having owned a 'greatest hits' compilation for a little while now.

Review: I'm going to open this up by stating that I have always felt a little wrong-footed where Devo are concerned. Their absurdist aesthetic and 'zany' music initially persuaded me that we're dealing with some art-house aural commentators-cum-pranksters, along the lines of Frank Zappa or perhaps even Oingo Boingo

However, on the evidence of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, I am convinced that this is a band who uses wackiness to conceal the fact that they're deadly serious.

Although part of the New Wave, Devo's roots pre-date punk and were initially buoyed by the artsy concept that humanity was regressing or de-evolving (hence the band name), a theme that surfaces every now and again on this album. In addition, founding member Gerald Casale was an eyewitness to the Kent State Massacre, where National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four of them. This is some quite heavy material for a joke band, no?

So here we have Q: Are We Not Men?, a title very aptly taken from H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau and with an album cover sporting an image not of the band but an airbrushed image of the professional golfer Chi-Chi Rodriguez. The Moreau inference - the creation of animal-man hybrids - fit into the devolution thesis nicely, but golf? Perhaps its emblematic of a culture that is slowly amusing itself to death, the "good walk ruined" being a past-time of the rich, idle and non-productive members of society, sucking up precious resources to keep their wastefully large fairways verdant out in the Arizona deserts. I say all this as a golf fan.

So what does all this blarney sound like when put to music? Pretty great, actually.

My favourite thing about Q: Are We Not Men? is that it's constantly kicking against rock conventions, sometimes by omitting them entirely (overt displays of tasteful technique, emotive singing) but sometimes by warping them out of shape into new and uncanny forms. Take opener 'Uncontrollable Urge', which sounds like the Romantics' 'What I Like About You' with all the groove and swing taken out; in its place are jerky, sped-up rhythms and a singer hooting out 'yeah-yeahs' like a malfunctioning robot. The latter affectation is particularly striking, stripping away the grunts 'n' yelps of innumerable rawkers of any sense of verisimilitude and so amplifying the notion that what you're hearing is artifice, fakery; a sham.

Yet 'Uncontrollable Urge' also explodes out of the speakers despite its stiff-collared discipline, and there's a weird exhilaration to be found within the rush of its motorik rhythms (NB: Alan Myers was one of popular music's great underrated drummers, no?).

Devo repeat the trick on a brilliant deconstruction of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction', almost an ur-text of modern rock music, turning it into a jerky android tale of consumerist frustration, complete with babbled 'babybabybaby' chants in place of Jagger's Thames Valley bluesmannery. This, and especially 'Jocko Homo' (which has a kinda, sorta call-and-answer version of the album's title as the chorus), sound not too dissimilar to latter day Captain Beefheart, most notably Bat Chain Puller (Shiny Beast), where recognisable time signatures are thrown out in favour of undanceable and awkward rhythms that nevertheless somehow hang together. It's not easy to listen to, but it's a perverse kind of fun.

Yet how, in 2021, do we parse a song called 'Mongoloid'? It's about an individual with Down's syndrome, but the lyrics are clear that he leads an ordinary life. Devo are always playing tricks on us, though always with serious intent; is their point (very controversially) that modernity has presented wage-slave humanity with an existence that is so flattened that it really doesn't make any difference if its participants possess any kind of developmental disorder? Or is it a commentary on everyone living the western 'bring home the bacon' lifestyle, much as we might be described as 'normies' or 'sheeple'? Nonetheless, the song leaves a slight whiff of distaste, even if the meaning is a little cryptic. (Perhaps that unease was exactly what Devo were aiming to produce?)

Side two of Q: Are We Not Men? possesses some fairly hard-driving music, almost punky in its execution, with Mark Mothersbaugh's garbled hysteria powering 'Gut Feeling (Slap Your Mammy)', 'Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')' and 'Come Back Jonee', the latter being another dissection of rock 'n' roll, this time Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B. Goode'. Instead of seeing his name in lights, this titular Jonee cuts out on a woman and slams his Datsun into a truck, 'Detroit Rock City' style. 

Beneath all the whizz-bangs and geekery, as mentioned previously, I detect something quite sincere. The subdural content of Q: Are We Not Men? is not light-heartedness or quirkiness but a deep cynicism and pessimism. It's a world of conformity, of angst and of the trauma done to the individual in a post-industrial world. By the same token, spontaneity, emotion and individual expression have all been snuffed out. The universe created by Devo on this album hardly smacks of 'hail fellow, well met' good cheer or merriment. It's bleak.

Maybe Devo lost their way a little later on by using the poetry of would-be Reagan assassin and current Twitter celeb John Hinckley Jr for lyrics? Or, say, when they teamed up with Disney to create a family-friendly version of themselves played by child actors called Devo 2.0? Perhaps these acts were taking Devo's almost nihilistic central theses to their logical conclusions? Perhaps they needed they money? Whatever happened to Devo since they first appeared - and yeah, they probably did soften up somewhat - the music that appears on Q: Are We Not Men feels like an articulation Futurism's proto-fascist politics crossed with a mangled version of Krautrock. Difficult, infuriating, ambiguous - and, at times, brilliant.