Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down
Back in the late Sixties, Marshall Chess, the son of Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess, made some of the most jive-ass albums in the blues lexicon. The young Marshall paired the label's greatest artists, among them Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley, with hotshot British and American rockers weaned on the classic Chess singles of the Fifties. The guest list was impressive and included the likes of Eric Clapton, Charlie Watts, Mike Bloomfield, and Paul Butterfield. The results, however, were uniformly wretched. By saddling these icons with leaden arrangements and cornball West Coast psychedelia, Marshall sapped the visceral power of the blues. The albums were an embarrassment to the artists' esteemed careers and to one of the music's most influential labels.
Over the past couple of years, dunderheaded blues purists have accused Oxford, Mississippi's Fat Possum Records of sacrilegious acts comparable to those committed by Marshall Chess, thanks to a handful of techno-style, hip-hop based remixes that have appeared on albums by R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Asie Payton, and Johnnie Farmer, among others. The comparison, however, is wrongheaded and feeble. The electro experiments and turntable scratching (introduced in 1998 on Burnside's Tom Rothrock-produced Come On In) have served as magnificent reminders of hip-hop's blues-steeped heritage. The Fat Possum remixes have taken both genres into new terrain, influencing along the way a host of postmodern hipsters from Moby to Beck.
With New Beats from the Delta, the geniuses at Fat Possum eclipse even the best of their previous remix jobs. The collection does not simply affix hip-hop beats and scratching to the hill-country blues of Junior Kimbrough, Asie Payton, Johnnie Farmer, Cedell Davis, and T-Model Ford. Rather the label basically turned over the songs to OutKast's Organized Noise, the Go Gittas Camp, Big Oomp, and Shrive Alive and let them go crazy. The original music isn't remixed so much as rebuilt, with a riff or a lyric refrain used as a bedrock for all kinds of high-tech sonic hoodoo. Farmer's "Death Letter" is presented in two versions, both by Organized Noise. The first is a haunting, mournful drone that wouldn't be out of place on an X-Files soundtrack; the latter is set to a loping, graceful beat with a rap that gives a gangsta update to the pathos of the original lyric. Both preserve the tormented doom of Farmer's version (a Son House standard found on Farmer's excellent 1998 album, Wrong Doers Respect Me) while transplanting this ancient classic to the urban landscape of hip-hop.
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That kind of thing happens throughout the twelve tracks on New Beats from the Delta, easily the most forward-looking blues album since Alvin Youngblood Hart's Start With the Soul. The innovations most likely will confound, even infuriate, the denizens of the Blues Foundation, given their disregard for any African-American music that strays from their definition of "the blues." The Go Gittas loop the hypnotic guitar work of Junior Kimbrough, interwoven with a sample of his pained vocals, on their leering "Do the Romp" and again on the menacing tracks "Stay All Night" and "I'm Leaving." Big Oomp turns T-Model Ford's "To the Left to the Right" into an almost surreal anti-war chant. The album flows like one long song: Gut-bucket guitars, field hollers, and moans float in the muck with thick electronic beats, turntable slices, and the sound effects that underpin the power and emotion of the north Mississippi blues.
Oddly R.L. Burnside is missing from New Beats, though the finest moments on his new album, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, would fit perfectly. Heaven doesn't stray far from the techno-blues introduced on Come On In, but it does offer a more fully realized mix of the traditional and the radical, thanks in part to the subtle flourishes of DJ Swamp, who works magic on "Got Messed Up," "Miss Maybelle," "Bad Luck City," and a whoop-ass version of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." The album's opening cut is a contemplative keyboard-coated version of Skip James's "Hard Time Killing Floor," while the title track features Burnside's most despondent lyrics accompanied only by the slippery slide guitar of Kenny Brown -- a throwback to earlier albums such as Bad Luck City and Too Bad Jim. Better, though, is the soulful uptown slink of "Too Many Ups," a brilliant thumping fusion of looped rhythms, piercing slide and wah-wah guitar, washes of Wurlitzer, and a deft fife-and-drum sample. Play Burnside's latest alongside New Beats from the Delta, and you'll hear the blues in all its 21st-century majesty and glory.
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