Delbert McClinton fittingly begins Acquired Taste, his 13th studio album and first in four years, with a boogied-up version of “Shortnin’ Bread”, the traditional folk classic. It nicely declares the album’s ambition: over the course of 13 more songs, McClinton delves into the American songbook and offers his own interpretation of many of its forms. Rock, pop, country, soul, blues, funk, jazz, even tango—McClinton and his band, Dick 50, play them all. Not every track crackles, but those that do show why McClinton has maintained a low-key longevity among fans of Americana and roots music.
The album’s ramble through pop music history is not always successful. The opener suggests some of its nagging faults. McClinton sexes up the original “Shortnin’ Bread” by titling his rendition “Mama’s Little Baby” and imagining that the pastry-loving girl of the original song has grown up to be a hot item herself. (This is the type of woman, sings McClinton, rather mystifyingly, who “don’t leave no chicken on the bone”.) Whether or not you think this is a wise choice, the song’s primary failing is musical; with its superfluous background vocals and intrusive guitar riffs, the arrangement is a touch overdone, not so much to be unpleasant but enough to make you think twice.
It’s not that McClinton is incapable of playing convincingly in different genres. Far from it. It’s just that his attempts occasionally suggest technical exercises rather than fully felt musicianship. After a few listens, one wonders if Acquired Taste‘s eclecticism isn’t a bit too studied. Take “Do It”, an honest-to-goodness funk song. It is impressive on first listen, perhaps because you don’t expect this sort of snarl from the context of the rest of the album. Yet it sounds more and more canned upon repeated plays. “Until Then” provides another example of the album’s sometimes-formulaic quality. The track starts off a piano-bar tune as McClinton croons about missing his woman. When he finally gets together with her, he kicks into a rollicking strut. This pattern repeats once before the band meanders off into tedious jamming. The song has its catchy moments and is competently done, but its infelicitous phrasing (“Lying here alone in bed / Like butter without any bread”) and rigid structure may leave the listener a little cold.
Flaws notwithstanding, about a quarter of the record hits the mark perfectly. The songs that excel are those where McClinton focuses on the basics that have bolstered his career: blues, country, and R&B.
“I Need to Know”, a gritty blues that channels Howlin’ Wolf, finds McClinton playing marvelous harmonica. What’s surprising is that this is the only song on the album that uses the instrument, especially considering that that McClinton started his career playing harmonica with Howlin’ Wolf himself, among other bluesmen. But McClinton’s voice, which has gained a considerable amount of gravel over the years, can carry a song just as well as his harp work. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Starting a Rumor”, co-penned with Guy Clark and frequent collaborator Gary Nicholson. Perhaps the record’s best song, it’s a piece of pure soul that sounds as if it could have come from 1960s Muscle Shoals. What’s even more impressive is that McClinton shifts so smoothly into the next track, “Can’t Nobody Say I Didn’t Try”, an effortless honky-tonk number that contains lyrics in the finest tradition of the genre: “I read somethin’ in a book once about women / That like a rose they last while they last / But she only blooms at night under the neon lights”.
As good as these songs are, there’s not much risky about them. But that’s not true of several other tracks on the album, one particularly worthy of mention: “She’s Not There Anymore”, a fine, brooding tango, far outside McClinton’s natural range yet wonderfully performed. Unlike some other tracks, it is more than a genre experiment; it suggests that McClinton has a true adventurous streak.
Though the record doesn’t exhibit such intrepidness for its entirety, for the most part it remains just off the beaten path. Only once, on “Cherry Street”, does it rely on the sort of insipid, cliché-ridden blues wankery that indicates an artist’s dwindling store of creativity. And while not all of the album’s ideas are perfectly executed, it’s refreshing that the ideas are there. With Acquired Taste, McClinton has proven himself nimble, mature, and still worthy of the respect he’s accrued after so many decades.