[27 February 2012]
Andre Williams has seen and done it all when it comes to music, and he has been seeing and doing it for longer than all but a handful of musicians. Williams has been recording, producing, and writing songs, solo and with or for various groups, since the 1950s. He started at Detroit’s Fortune Records, where he recorded some of his best known songs such as “Bacon Fat” and “Jail Bait”, on which Williams just talks over simple beats of slinky horns, rudimentary percussion, and piano—an original approach at the time. In the early ‘60s, he worked at Motown, where he did some writing with young Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. later, he wrote a little bit for Edwin Starr. After Motown, he moved to Chess Records for some time, later he worked with Ike Turner for a while. He got involved with drugs; he did some writing and production with Parliament and others. In the last 20 years, he has enjoyed a solo resurgence of sorts, releasing a series of albums under his own name, often working with other Detroit musical luminaries and building on the subtly lecherous themes of songs like “Jail Bait”, about under-aged women. He has described his latest record, Hoods and Shades, as a folk album, and it largely (but not entirely) eschews lewd humor in favor of examining mankind, money, and trends in fashion.
For Hoods and Shades, Williams is once again backed by a veteran crew of musicians. Don Was, who has played with everyone from Al Green and B.B. King to Iggy Pop and Paul Westerberg, former Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey, Jim White, the drummer from the Dirty Three, and Jim Diamond, the bassist from the muscular Detroit garage band the Dirtbombs. The instrumental palette is light and bare, usually building around a blues shuffle on acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. Electric guitar sometimes sears over the top, but it is mixed so that these explosions remain contained. Horns appear only sparingly. A few cuts are more up-tempo: “Jaw Dropper” is light rockabilly, while “Dirt” has the same swing and chord progression as Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, though the sentiment is different—“when it all boils down, we just dirt.”
The simple backing allows Williams’s voice plenty of space. He often starts his songs with spoken sections, and he sings in a conversational fashion with a deep, low voice. He is capable of gravelly croaks, stretching syllables out to wring maximum meaning out of them, or choking words off to emphasize his points. “A Good Day to Feel Bad” and “Hoods and Shades” contain only spoken vocals. Lyrically, Williams dabbles in a number of topics. “Dirt” stresses equality, while “Hoods and Shades” is a grim discussion of social ills. One especially bluesy number, “Swamp Dogg’s Hot Spot”, tells the story of Swamp Dogg, Williams’s comrade who has also been working in blues and R&B for over 50 years, though Swamp Dogg’s work is weirder and funkier than Andre Williams’s stuff. “Gimme” is single-mindedly lascivious, and “Jaw Dropper” works in a similar vein, as Williams sings hoarse and high in an effort to cajole a woman into accepting his invitations.
Hoods and Shades is blues written and recorded by men with intimate knowledge of the genre. It does not move in any new or unexpected directions—but blues is not necessarily about innovation. Those who are inclined to grumble that ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’ will be relieved to discover that Mr. Williams still does.