Popular swamp music
Tony Joe White invented popular swamp music. His sixties’ smash “Polk Salad Annie” made the guttural mud-sucking funk sound identifiable and cool. His latest record, Hoodoo is chock full of that rhythm. Just like the fact that some people love B.B. King because of the way he can milk a single note into a rich vibration that just rings right, there are those who crave White for his ability to turn that throbbing, thumping uh-uhh hazy guitar beat. Those fans will love Hoodoo. It seems the sole reason for the existence for tunes like “Alligator, Mississipi”, “Who You Gonna Hoodoo Now?” and “The Gift”.
However, casual fans will be less effusive in their praise. White has still got it—it being his signature swamp sound, but he seems less than passionate—whether singing about the flood and devastation or the beauty of a girl with skin the color of coffee with a little bit of cream and eyes of green. The sentiment is there, but it seems inner directed. We are supposed to care more about how an overflowing river and the beauty of a woman affected him more than for the objects of his attention. And he’s more of an observer than someone who uses his subjectivity as a filter for what’s important. First impressions are not enough. We got to know why something is important beyond surface details.
White wrote or co-wrote all nine songs, plays guitar and sings lead. He’s backed by drums, bass, keyboards and even cello to give the disc that swamp feel. To a certain extent, the sound does override the a bit too laid back rendering of time and place. The musicians build a solid groove. One cannot overstate the importance of that rhythm; makes one feel hongry, sexy and a little mean—even when White’s singing about storms and kids, poverty and hard work, and finding oneself hanging out in the graveyard. This fact gives White license to not pay much attention to the details.
But despite the title, one never feels totally entranced by the listening experience. It’s like someone showing you a picture of a good meal, describing how tasty the food is, but never giving you a bite. White’s no Lynne Rossetto Kasper. It’s not enough for him to whet your appetite. You expect him to deliver the goods.
At his best, White has always evoked the sound of a blues artist like John Lee Hooker, whose expressive grunts said as much as his best lines. There is some of that here on tunes such as “9 Foot Sack” and “Storm Comin’”. Maybe it’s because these songs evoke memories more than comment on the present. White indulges himself in the past as a catalyst for feeling. It’s not nostalgia, but the way long ago reminiscences can supersede current ones. White’s 70 years old now, perhaps he should be given some slack for his age.
Forget that, White does not need some senior citizen’s handicapping to get a break. He’s still talented enough to succeed on his own merits. Hoodoo has got enough good stuff on it to find its way on the radio and personal playlists of those too young to remember his past success. It’s not a comeback, because he never completely disappeared during the twentieth century, releasing a few records and doing live gigs. It’s more of a continuation, but I do wish he would get really mad or stupid or something to give these songs something extra instead of more of the same.
// Notes from the Road
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