Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers
Switching Gears
(Blind Pig)

A quote from Jimmy Thackery appears on the shrink-wrap of teen guitar sensation Jonny Lang's 1996 debut Lie to Me: "He plays so good I want to break his fingers." Thackery plays so great that someone should have taken out a contract on his digits long ago. For many years Thackery served as ax man for the sizzling, D.C.-based, blues-rocking powerhouse the Nighthawks, but he flew the coop in 1987 to assemble the six-piece R&B/rock outfit the Assassins, which expired in 1991. At that point the guitarist returned to basics, and he's spent most of the Nineties backed by only a bassist and drummer. With the Drivers -- currently drummer Mark Stutso and bass player Michael Patrick -- Thackery has cranked out four super albums of bruising, breakneck blooze-rock.

On Switching Gears he, uh, switches gears without grinding them (too much). Thackery and the Drivers successfully tackle gritty urban blues (on B.B. King's "It's My Own Fault," with Lonnie Brooks guesting on vocals and guitar); swinging acoustic blues (on Joe Louis Walker's "If This Is Love," with Walker himself on acoustic guitar and vocals); and zydeco (on Thackery's "Take Me with You When You Go," with Chubby Carrier squeezing accordion). A few experiments don't quite work: The soulful "Dancing on Broken Glass" (Reba Russell shares vocals with Thackery) seems a bit forced, while a six-minute version of Jimi Hendrix's "Still Raining, Still Dreaming" (with Joe McGlohon blowing sax) adds nothing to the untouchable original.

Like many other guitar virtuosos (Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan), Thackery's singing and songwriting talents are often overlooked -- or at least overshadowed. He has a hearty and hardy voice, and as usual he wrote most of the material here (eight of the twelve cuts). Switching Gears might not fire up the brain's pleasure center as consistently as did Thackery's 1995 rowdy, live Wild Night Out! or the following year's relentlessly rocking Drive to Survive, but it's a nice change of pace, the kind of album he needed to make at this point in his career to keep from falling into a rut. (P.O. Box 2344, San Francisco, CA 94126)

-- Jim Maher

Alejandro Escovedo
More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96

Like a roots-rock renaissance man, Austin singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo can seemingly do everything -- from blazing, guitar-driven rock and roll to folk-style emotional explorations, from aching country and western to gripping real-life essays worthy of Bruce Springsteen. A veteran of the Seventies punk group the Nuns and Eighties cult outfits Rank and File and True Believers, Escovedo has knocked out three eclectic but uniformly excellent solo albums (1992's Gravity, 1993's Thirteen Years, and 1996's With These Hands) and one blistering disc with his metallic side band Buick MacKane (1997's The Pawn Shop Years). More Miles Than Money, his first release on Chicago's "insurgent country" label Bloodshot, offers a diverse survey of material drawn from his first three albums, with violins, cellos, steel guitars, and mandolins helping to set Escovedo apart from his roots-rock contemporaries and to enhance his earnestly poetic songs of love, loss, and late-night lamentation.

Although its eleven tracks were cut live in clubs and theaters in the United States (and Paris), More Miles Than Money is a quiet album, the antithesis of his throttling, guitar-drenched shows with Buick MacKane. String sections weep plaintively throughout many of the songs, and the focus is on Escovedo's slower, more contemplative material. That's not to say that More Miles is an easy listen; rather, it's a melancholic, often brutal album of hard truths, grim realities, and broken hearts, with performances suited perfectly for the pain and torment of the lyrics and Escovedo's raw, forthright vocals. Most of the songs here have been stripped to the bone, then redressed with orchestral flourishes that are alternately beautiful ("Last to Know") and harrowing ("Slip"). Others have been rebuilt completely: "One More Time," a crunching Mott the Hoople-style rocker from Gravity, is taken at a funereal pace, with slide guitar and cello draped mournfully over Escovedo's grief-stricken plea for company and comfort as night starts to fall, even though he's not sure he's worthy of either. He does the same thing with the Rolling Stones' "Sway," salvaging the lyrics from Mick Jagger's slurred original on 1971's Sticky Fingers and turning the song into a showcase for the lacerating lead guitar of Joe Eddy Hines and David Felberg's gorgeous violin fills.

The mood gets even darker as Escovedo offers up definitive versions of his bleakest character studies -- the ill-fated lovers in "Last to Know" and "Slip"; the lonely drunk in "Pissed Off 2 A.M."; the heartbroken wretches in "Broken Bottle" and "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore"; the awestruck romantic in the beautifully morose "She Towers Above." It's a relentless set, and definitely not the thing you want to hear if you're nursing a broken heart of your own. But like every album in Escovedo's impressive if underappreciated oeuvre, More Miles Than Money includes a redemptive rocker to help keep the ghosts at bay -- "I Wanna Be Your Dog," the 1969 Stooges classic that has been a staple of Escovedo's live set since his stint with True Believers, presented here as seven searing minutes of roaring electric guitars, pummeling drums, and violin and cello sawing like hell at the quintessentially punk three-chord riff. (Bloodshot Records, 912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613-4339)

-- John Floyd

Hi Fi Killers

King Britt Presents Sylk 130
When the Funk Hits the Fan

Hi Fi Killers (Seattle musicians-turned-DJs Kevin Lee Oakland and Johnny Guitar Horn) like to reproduce Seventies soundtrack funk, with one significant modification: Every element of this genre that hinted at the experimental -- the transporting effect of an evolving theme, a wah-wah guitar's rubber-band rhythm, foglike organ drones, and wispy brass solos deep in the mix -- is subtly magnified. Their 1997 debut Loaded was the product of a unique orchestral process. The duo digitally spliced up fat-bootied bass and snare tracks, then sent tapes of the formidable results to Horn's father Jim in the soul city of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Dad leads an old-pro brass outfit (the Muscle Shoals Horns) and played with Elvis in the Fifties. The tapes arrived back in Seattle with enough breakdown buckshot to make Marilyn Manson do the duckwalk.

The six-track EP Stretch presents similar synthetic/organic hybrids, including a remix of the choice Loaded instrumental "Kojak Cries," with sharp turntable scratching added. The other five cuts keep any hint of the contemporary era on the down-low.

Hi Fi Killers have found some different, if not exactly new, groove toys to play with -- notably the sounds of P-Funk proto-disco and Jamaican mad-scientist reel-to-reel dub. As was the case on Loaded, these retro revisitations skirt the trap of coming off as tributes, keeping the Killers squarely in the vanguard. Perhaps it's the hidden work of DJ'ing -- editing -- that makes this so. George Clinton and King Tubby never sounded so concise. Hi Fi Killers integrate those masters' transcendent visions into a world in which every great musical idea is but a single shining moment on the global dance floor.

Joining Hi Fi Killers on the high wire connecting cutting-edge mixology to black soul heritage is DJ King Britt, a long-time associate of rave luminary (and fellow Philadelphian) Josh Wink. Like Stretch, Britt's When the Funk Hits the Fan is a DJ-conducted studio jam session, but he and his collaborators -- Sylk 130 -- attempt a far more ambitious project. Britt conceived his album as a sonic movie -- a "phonography" -- depicting a slice from the life of a young, groove-powered DJ. The setting is Southwest Philly in the mid-Seventies.

In short skits that stitch together the tracks -- similar to the motif used on De La Soul's 1989 3 Feet High and Rising -- Britt's character moves through a world in which swanky lounge jazz is just starting to rub elbows with FM soul and Day-Glo funk; even street poets are getting off the sidewalks and in on the action. The album evokes an environment in which the vibe was wide open -- a moment when institutions were called into question and anything could happen.

Whereas Hi Fi Killers' images of the Seventies play on the cartoony excess of a platform-shoe strut, King Britt's seem far more serious, even reverent. He portrays a decade of alchemy, a time when the music of a thousand tribal traditions birthed a universal black American language of freedom and emotion. That especial timbre of resonance is clearly of tremendous import to Britt, a young, successful black musician (he's done dozens of dance music singles and remixes, and was for a time the touring DJ for Digable Planets) paying homage to his heritage.

When near the end of When the Funk Hits the Fan the band launches into a cover of In Deep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," it's either the pinnacle of a worthy reclaiming of that heritage for a new generation or more self-congratulatory cribbing by a pretentious rave kid. Your interpretation will depend on how immersed you have become in Britt's "film."

Both Hi Fi Killers and King Britt seem to be working backward from hip-hop, following the trail of samples to the live ensemble grooves of a generation ago. To those historic blends they have added their own perspective, informed by recently perfected methods of fusing an enormous array of sounds. (Loosegroove, 417 Denny Way, Seattle, WA 98109)

-- Adam Heimlich


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