Rory Block is a fine guitar player and a gifted singer, a blueswoman who has been recording and releasing records for over 35 years. Her body of work reveals powerful voice and an excellent, fluid, finger-picking guitar technique. She’s the real deal, in other words, and this album of covers written by one of her heroes, Mississippi Fred McDowell, should be purely awesome. It’s not.
Block seems to be in the midst of a reconsideration of the oeuvres of famous blues artists. Her 2008 release, Blues Walkin’ Like a Man, was a tribute to another old-time legend, Son House. 2006’s Lady and Mr Johnson was a collection of Robert Johnson tunes. I haven’t heard these records, so I can’t judge how successful they are, but based on Shake ‘Em on Down, I would be wary.
It’s not that Block can’t play guitar. She damn well can, and her picking is lively and animated throughout the album. The first couple of tunes, “Steady Freddy” and “Mississippi Man”, establish her dexterity and chops within a few bars apiece—the former through its chugging rhythm and fluid slide; the latter with its percussive pulse. The entire album is filled with terrific guitar playing, from the shimmering slide that opens “Good Morning Little School Girl” to the funky twanging of “Worried Mind.”
Nope, it’s not the guitar playing that’s the issue here. It’s the singing.
Block’s voice has always been a trifle on the thin side, and it’s gotten thinner over the past couple of decades. She’s never been a belter like Marcia Ball, nor a growler like Koko Taylor, and she’s always had to rely on phrasing and style to make up for her absence of raw power. Okay, that’s fine. On Shake ‘Em on Down, though, she overplays that phrasing to an absurd degree, and it undercuts the songs badly.
Misissippi Fred McDowell didn’t play guitar half as well as Rory Block, but his lyrics were delivered at times in a bitten-off, throwaway style, other times in a lingering drawl, all of it deeply accented from his rural childhood in Tenessee (not Mississippi; that came later). Block just doesn’t have his voice, and her attempts to imbue his lyrics with her own drawling delivery come off as comical more than anything else. “Anymore” becomes “any-mowww”, “baby” becomes “bay-bayyyy”, “morning” becomes “moanin’”, and none of it is terribly convincing. Rather than sounding like an actual blues singer, which she undeniably is, Block on this record comes off more like a American Idol contestant’s rendition of what a blues singer sounds like. That’s not a good thing.
The news isn’t entirely terrible. “Kokomo Blues” sounds just fine, partly because Block reins in the cheese and partly because it’s such a great song no matter who sings it (John Renbourn, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Norwood, your mom, my mom). “The Breadline” is a thumping, Depression-era protest tune whose tale of economic woe sounds eerily apropos nowadays. “Woke Up This Morning” is a moving devotional tune featuring Block singing harmony with herself.
These moments, however, are the exception rather than the norm. As a guitar player, Block ranks among the very best, but her attempts to honor her heroes are coming off increasingly like a bad ventriloquist act.