Just Like You
Alvin Youngblood Hart
Big Mama's Door
California-born bluesmen Alvin Youngblood Hart and Kevin Moore (Keb' Mo' for short) share more than just a label and a birth state. Both men are in their thirties and are equally dazzling guitarists and vocalists. More important, Hart and Mo' manage to carry the decades-old traditions of acoustic Delta blues into the Nineties without cheapening its legacy through mere imitation or ignoring the modern world that lurks outside the music's front door. By juxtaposing their own detailed and evocative originals with the prewar classics of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and others, Hart and Mo' make reverential nods to the past and at the same time look ahead to its future.
The Compton-raised, New Orleans-based Keb' Mo' debuted in 1994 with a self-titled set for OKeh, a masterful collection of acoustic blues (including a pair of Robert Johnson covers) and lightly swinging redux soul that showcased his darting guitar work and honey-baked vocals. Just Like You offers a variation on that formula, with only one Johnson cover this time (a Crescent City-style reworking of "Last Fair Deal Gone Down") and the continuing integration of a full band into his sound (enhanced on the title cut by guest-vocal shots by Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne).
The album covers a wide patch of blues-based terrain: "That's Not Love" sways to a country-soul groove, while "Standin' at the Station" is a bracing bottleneck stomper. Mo's writing is similarly ambitious. Like a million bluesmen before him, Mo' knows how it feels to hang around a train station with a broken heart in one hand and a suitcase in the other. On Just Like You, Mo' also contemplates domestic hardships ("Momma, Where's My Daddy"), prejudice (the title cut), and the roots of his raising ("More Than One Way Home"). He closes the set with the delicate and tear-jerking "Lullaby Baby Blues," a gorgeous poem from father to son.
Unlike the genre-fusing Mo', the Bay Area's Alvin Youngblood Hart sticks close to the verities of the Mississippi Delta's gut-bucket masters on Big Mama's Door, his debut disc. His voice has the rocks-and-rotgut timbre of Charley Patton, and his slashing slide-guitar attack resembles the primal bottleneck work of Son House. But Hart makes the Delta blues his own, on adaptions of ancient material ("Gallows Pole," "France Blues") as well as his originals ("Big Mama's Door," "Rest Your Saddle"). He shares a few cuts with revivalist bluesman Taj Mahal, who lends background vocals to "Things 'Bout Comin' My Way" and peels off some blistering mandolin licks on "France Blues." However, Hart best summons the emotional power of his blues elders when left on his own: On "Pony Blues" he comes close to matching the desperation of Patton's original, and the steel-guitar-rocking "Rest Your Saddle" does proud by the late legend Bukka White, to whom the song is dedicated.
-- John Floyd
Everything But the Girl
Over a thirteen-year career, Ben Watt and Tracy Thorn of Everything But the Girl have done their share of style hopping, from jazz pop to Brit pop to orchestral pop to contemporary R&B to jazzy R&B. With Walking Wounded, the duo's seventh album, Everything But the Girl lands good as new onto the dance floor with a batch of songs based around techno beats. The shift toward electronics may seem odd for a group that of late has been pandering to the VH1 set. But given the huge success of their 1994 beat-driven remix single "Missing" and their fruitful collaborations on Massive Attack's breakthrough trip-hop record Protection, the rewards of embracing club sounds had already been well-proven.
Since their 1983 debut as guests on a Style Council album, EBTG has always focused its sound on Thorn's lush, soulful voice, which has weathered well all the group's stylistic incarnations. Walking Wounded, though, introduces a second focal point: the insanely attractive, intricately sculpted beats of a jungle offshoot called drum 'n' bass. On "Before Today," "Single," and the title track, the interaction of a smooth vocal and a beat's minutely detailed rhythms makes for an elegant symbiosis. And even with the help of progressive dance specialists like Howie B. and Spring Heel Jack, EBTG retains a maturity that shouldn't alienate old fans. In fact, Walking Wounded is just the sort of thing folks may someday bop to as they ride in the elevators of the future.
-- Roni Sarig
The Sons of Intemperance Offering
If you've got any kind of ear for country, blues, or R&B, this is one of those records destined to hang around the stereo for a few months. With its oblique lyrics, lush melodies, and sly arrangements, The Sons of Intemperance Offering will most likely provoke comparisons to the work of Bob Dylan. Toss 'em out. Dylan hasn't turned out an album with this much juice in twenty years.
A native of Cleveland, Phil Cody went about making this stunning debut the no-bullshit way: He assembled a cast of versatile studio pros and cut the fourteen songs assembled here in one take. The spontaneity is captured masterfully on "House of Lust," the raucous New Orleans-style set opener. Rami Jaffee's Hammond B-3 trills above the bluesy riffs of guitarist Bill Bonk. Roger Len Smith (bass) and Andrew Kamman (drums) provide locomotion, while Cody strums a dreamy rhythm guitar and lets out soulful yelps that sound more like Steve Forbert than does Steve Forbert. "Running Halfway Blown" teams the banjo work of Matt Cartsonis with Jaffee's wheezing accordion to produce a southern-fried jamboree that manages to mimic the jangled joys of inebriation. Intemperance's sole cover is a balls-out version of the 1982 Clash gem "Straight to Hell" that emphasizes the song's bluesy undercurrent, building to a crescendo that drowns the listener in scalding guitar licks, organ fills, and Kamman's hypnotic military drumbeat.
Cody's ballads are equally effecting. "Scream at the Blackbirds" is a dirge that eschews guitars for Jaffee's mournful Mellotron. "The Loneliest Girl in the World" mixes a sprinkling of piano with moody plucks on the mandolin.
Cody isn't one to commandeer the soapbox. "Tighten Up" is about as close as he gets to prescriptive writing. "Tighten up," he sings in a thick twang. "Don't spread yourself too thin." It's advice he's followed to a T throughout this remarkable debut.
-- Steven Almond
The Baltimore Consort
A Trip to Killburn
According to the press releases, the Baltimore Consort comprises "virtuoso Renaissance musicians who revive music of the past for today's audiences," but I prefer to think of them as six cool folkies in a time warp that unpredictably spits them out into one or another century somewhere in North America or Europe. There's plenty of good scholarship in their reconstructions and performances of early music from the British Isles and France. However, although they have their reflective moments, they are essentially a party band -- a sometimes boozy, sometimes lewd cross between Peter, Paul, and Mary and the cast of the Renaissance Faire, but without the silly costumes.
A Trip to Killburn is the Consort's collection of popular music from seventeenth-century England, first compiled by music publisher John Playford in his seminal anthology of dance tunes entitled The English Dancing Master. Some of these tunes acquired words and became ballads -- not necessarily for polite company. The lyrics prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same. A young man complains that "a sound, sound sleep I'll never get/Until I lie ayon thee." "The Famous Ratketcher" is the forerunner of today's Orkin Man, and "The Joviall Broome Man" might be a soldier of fortune from a Chuck Norris movie: "Yet in these countries lived I/And see many a valiant souldier dye/An hundred gallants there I kill'd/And beside, a world of blood I spilled."
All the Consort's instruments used on this CD (including Scottish wind pipes, wooden flutes, and ancestors of the modern guitar) are either copies of ancient models or the real thing. Their unusual tone qualities stimulate both the ears and the feet. Custer LaRue adds her soprano to five songs here, and she sounds fresher than tomorrow's bread. Is this folk music? Is this early music? No matter what you call it, taking A Trip to Killburn is a fine way to spend an idle afternoon.
-- Raymond Tuttle
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