Thursday, February 12, 2015

Big Joe Turner - Shout, Rattle, and Roll (1938-1954/2005)

I don't rightly know why I have this album. George reviewed it a few years back, and I decided I should probably have at least one collection of something like this. I saw it fairly cheap on Amazon – no longer the case, by the way – and so I picked it up. And that's how I found myself with a 4 CD, 100 song box set of Big Joe Turner's material.

And you know what? I don't regret it. I don't listen to it except in portions, of course, but even the one or two times that I listened to it in one hour chunks, it never got annoying or boring. This is amazing to me, since it's basically just the same old dude bellowing over piano-and-brass dominated “jump blues” (or whatever you want to call it). Big Joe Turner himself had basically nothing to do with the actual creation of this material, usually just singing and having no writing or playing credits. It's tempting to use the Elvis Argument here and say “Well, the material may be good, but Big Joe Turner doesn't deserve any credit as he was little more than a personality to attach the work of others.” However, that line of reasoning is also subject to the Elvis Counter-Argument, which states “He may have had little to do with the creation of the material, but would the material have existed if Big Joe Turner had not?”

I don't know the answer to these questions, but certain things seem apparent to me. One is that the people who played for Big Joe Turner were thoroughly excellent, always varying up the samey material enough to make even the most redundant and unnecessary tracks sound unique. Another is that there is no doubt in my mind how much of an influence this particular type of blues had on rock music. The opening “Roll 'Em Pete” sounds like piano based Jerry Lee Lewis style rock and roll over 15 years before that time, just a little bit calmer and more restrained.

Highlights are difficult to pick out, but I'd have to point out the ones which break from the blues formula and presage rock in certain ways. The frenetic – and electric guitar based! - “I Don't Dig It” is excellent, for example, as are both parts of “Around The Clock,” which certainly informs Chuck Berry's “Reelin' and Rockin'” in very obvious ways. “Bump Miss Suzie” is another great upbeat Little Richard style number, and “Honey Hush” is basically the exact same song as the later, much more epoch defining “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” I have to guess the latter met much greater success than the original because of the lyrics – sexual innuendo as opposed to the excessively violent misogynistic lyrics of the former. Not that “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” isn't also misogynistic, it's just that nobody heard that because of the fun “let's dance!” mode of the chorus.

Really, the only section I'm not fond of are the slow ballads that Turner suddenly became obsessed with in the early-50's. He had a big hit during this period (“Chains of Love”) but the lumpy blues ballads just aren't very interesting in the hands of Big Joe Turner and his sidemen. Still, this is just a small section at the beginning of the fourth disc and is hardly cause for complaint.

I'm hardly an expert on this kind of music, but I know what I like, and for the most part, I find this collection pretty enjoyable. It's hardly my favorite thing in the world to listen to, but it's a nice little package of one of the more influential big band blues artists of his day, and if you're interested in this type of music for either historical or enjoyment purposes, you could probably do a lot worse than Big Joe Turner. Pick up a similar collection if you're interested.

Rating: N/A

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings (1936-1937/1990)

Poor Robert Johnson. First he sold his soul to Satan at the crossroads to be a great musician and died young as a result, and then he becomes my go-to example for “influential, but difficult to digest” blues artist. Two tragedies of equal gravity and importance befall one man!

In my old review here, I tried to make a case for this collection being enjoyable in addition to important and admirable. Sadly, I really think I was just fooling myself, because Robert Johnson is just so wildly important that I wanted this collection to be as entertaining as, say, Blind Willie Johnson's. But it really just isn't the case.

Robert Johnson is probably the most important guitarist who ever lived, at least, in the fields of blues, rock, and all of its children, which includes most of popular music. He codified the “five man band” guitarist, playing rhythm, lead, and bass on one acoustic guitar while singing and tapping his foot. In addition, he set in stone many of the blues licks we take for granted today as pretty much always existing, not to mention, perhaps most importantly, the bass line. The prototypical rock and roll boogie bass line that just popped into your head when you read the first half of that sentence was, well, maybe not exactly invented by Robert Johnson, but first applied in this way to this type of music and served as the wellspring from which every other artist drew it.

Unfortunately, about half of his songs or more are set to the exact same blues melody, with licks that we in the modern world have heard ten thousand times, and that, combined with the stupid sequencing of this collection, makes this an excruciating listen. For some reason that I can't fathom, all of the alternate takes are placed right next to their “originals.” I can understand including them for historical purposes, but why not put them all on the second disc together or something? It makes an already monotonous listen even more monolithic.

None of this is Robert Johnson's fault. These were all released as singles and never meant to be listened to all at one time. The concept of a full length album was a barely cogent one at the time, certainly not for the likes of Delta blues artists. The playing on all of the tracks is immaculate, completely worthy of all of the adulation heaped upon him. It's too bad I can't listen to more than a couple of songs at a time without growing incredibly bored.

There are a few tracks which deviate from the standard Robert Johnson template, and taking the frantic “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” the folksy “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” or the goofy ragtime of “They're Red Hot” and combining them with a few of the other more interesting tracks could form a perfectly listenable and enjoyable single album, I'm sure. Overall, though, you're better off seeking out the innumerable covers people have done of these songs, as they tend to pull out the hidden beauty or power of the track in a way that Robert Johnson's single-minded musical philosophy tends to obfuscate.

My recommendation would be to take a listen to a few of the more important songs if you're so inclined, just to see where it all started, but don't force feed yourself this compilation just because you feel like you have to enjoy it out of some sort of objective musical integrity. Acknowledging the importance and influence of Robert Johnson's musical output and respecting it for what it is qualifies more than enough.

Rating: N/A

Blind Willie Johnson - The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (1927-1930/1993)

There are a lot of important blues guitarists out there from the first half of the 20th century, but oftentimes, the only reason to listen to them is for the necessity of historical context and understanding where certain techniques and influences come from. It's not their fault, but they tend to be not very enjoyable to our modern ears, both due to the melodies and once innovative playing styles being beaten into the ground since then, in addition to the fact that they were never intended to be listened to all in one sitting as the compilations provide them. However, I insist that Blind Willie Johnson is a huge exception to this rule, as his material manages to be interesting enough to still hold up even today, almost 90 years later.

It's impossible to overstate Blind Willie Johnson's importance, as basically every slide guitarist has aped his every move. It's surprising, then, that he still does it better than any of them. His proto-Tom Waits bluesman's growl combines with his slithering slide riffs to form some unforgettable gospel-blues experiences. His original version of “Nobody's Fault But Mine” still blows all other versions out of the water, and the entire first half of this collection is one classic after another.

To try and name check every song or continuously praise them with some variation of “awesome guitar playing, moving vocals, etc.” would be ridiculous. I will say that “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)” shows that he can create haunting, evocative pictures with just his guitar and some humming/moaning, no true vocals required. I'll also say that his material is less effective when he drops his false growl and takes the bottleneck off his finger, but it's a testament to the man's talent and, quite frankly, sheer power that even then the tracks are still quite captivating and enjoyable. The only track I don't really like is “Can't Nobody Hide From God,” which is literally just three minutes of repeating the title in a round with his wife and gets old very fast.

Other than that one misstep, even all bunched together as 30 tracks over the course of 90 minutes, I can honestly say this collection never wears me down. Each song is independently enjoyable and different enough from the ones that surround it for it to never be wearying. And Blind Willie Johnson's charisma is a hook all its own. As I said before, the key word here is “power,” and while I may not sympathize with his religious views, well, I don't sympathize with Bob Marley's or George Harrison's either, and it's never hindered my enjoyment of their material. This is one blues legend who can be not only appreciated, but thoroughly enjoyed. By all means, if you haven't heard this compilation yet, and you have the faintest interest in blues or gospel, pick this up. You won't regret it.

Rating: N/A