From the opening blast of distorted electric guitar that kicks off Start with the Soul, Alvin Youngblood Hart both distances himself from the blues purism of his first two albums and redefines the whole damn genre in ways even Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray never pulled off. That first song, "Fightin' Hard," epitomizes everything brilliant about the album, with crashing drums; a rumbling bass; guitar work touching on Hendrix, Verlaine, and Townshend; and lyrics struggling with the reality of death and the potential of the future. There's rage in his voice but also compassion, worry, and love. In other words it epitomizes every emotion in the canon of the blues, but in a way that is like nothing you'll hear from the eclectic Mississippi screwballs on Fat Possum or the dry-toast roster of Alligator.
Throughout its 40-something minutes, Start with the Soul encompasses nearly everything in American music's past and present: There's a joyously silly romp through the hilarious honky-tonk "Cowboy Boots"; a swampy rockabilly rave-up on Chuck Berry's "Back to Memphis"; a Memphis-soul remake of the Seventies hit "Treat Her Like a Lady"; the ferociously rocking "Cryin' Shame"; and the slice-of-life scenario of "Once Again," which is set to a slinky, nocturnal groove and drenched in reverb. Veteran producer Jim Dickinson keeps the settings suitably sparse, with the focus on the versatile rhythm section and Hart's arsenal of guitar styles, which since his 1996 Delta-drenched debut has included surf, jazz, and the outer-limits experimentation of noise and punk.
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The result is an odd but masterful hodgepodge of genres that Hart makes his own through the singularity of his determined, sharply focused vision. That's how he connects the rock and roll maelstrom of "Fightin' Hard" with the Howlin' Wolf homage "A Prophet's Mission." And it's how he not only pulls off the shuffling funk instrumental "Porch Monkey's Theme" but follows it with the eerily atmospheric "Electric Eel," which wiggles into your skin like the critter it's named for. This vision enables Hart to take in the world, sort through its myriad joys and hardships, and present crystal-clear images to expand the vocabulary of the blues as brilliantly as Robert Johnson did 60 years earlier. So does that make Start with the Soul the blues album of the year? Hell no. This is the album of the year, period.