R.L. Burnside, the 75-year-old Mississippi blues singer/guitarist, may seem like a strange candidate for the position of postmodern musical pioneer. Yet the music on this album is a truer, more emotionally satisfying linkage of contemporary style and technique to roots music than, say, Moby’s Play. Where Play pasted root-clippings to the flowers of postmodern computer-rock, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down decorates some big, muddy roots with a few, sparse, techno-flowers. Play used blues and gospel samples like convenience ingredients: “just-add-emotion”. God bless the child that’s got his own.
R.L.‘s voice has never been so well recorded. The dark, deep, weathered, grain stands its ground alongside the greatest living roots legends: John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash. This time there is little or no sampling. The songs are approached as songs, performed by a studio band with scratching and looping from DJ Swamp and Iki Levy. This approach yields gems like the title track, but fans of R.L.‘s previous album, may be disappointed that the experimentalism of Come On In is not pushed farther on the new release. When Tom Rothrock sampled RL’s vocals on Come On In‘s “It’s Bad You Know”, the effect was like zooming in on a detail in a painting: the artistry was intensified. A line like, “The engineer blowed the whistle and the fireman rang the bell,” flashes by in a traditional blues song, its meaning mediated by the overall narrative. Sampled, the line resonates in its own echoes and a gone world of engineers, train-whistles, firemen and bells falls apart and comes together again in a revolving, rattling, sonic boxcar.
Traditionalists, of course, may still find this album too experimental, and dismiss any type of cross-pollination of scratching and looping with roots blues. Contrary-wise it may be said that one of the many disservices done to blues artists by the music industry was denying their records the kind of attention to production that was lavished on popular artists, both white and black, in the 1960’s. There are notable exceptions, like the Vanguard albums of John Hurt and Skip James, but in general, while artists like the Beatles and Marvin Gaye were being allowed to explore multi-track recording as an art form, blues records were still being recorded and sequenced in the 60’s and 70’s with little or no sense of “production values” or aesthetic continuity. In this sense, then, the work on Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down is a long-overdue updating of production standards for roots blues artists. Like Come on In, its predecessor, Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down is satisfying and engrossing as an entity, a mood piece.
The album opens with Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor,” which RL turns into a chillingly matter-of-fact account of the destruction of his own family by urban street crime. On the closing lines, “Let me tell you people, just before I go/These hard times will kill you, yes I know,” RL’s voice has the Old-Testament-Prophet authority of a Son House or a Blind Willie Johnson. At the other end of the spectrum, “My Eyes Keep Me In Trouble” is an R. Crumb cartoon set to music. Blue-grassy mandolin is sprinkled over a New Orleans strut, a lyric that has RL wanting “every woman I see,” and instrumental breaks that echo old Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell recordings. RL even takes on Don Covay’s “Chain of Fools.” The cold fire of Aretha’s original is turned down to a slow, acidic burn, and RL speaks the lyric as a cool meditation on the inevitability and destructive-seductive power of real love-addiction.
If you’re dissatisfied with the fast-fading flowers of contemporary music, but don’t know where to start in the root swamp, try Wish I was In Heaven Sitting Down. Then check RL’s other recent output, especially Come on In and Mr. Wizard. After that, why not adventure on through the whole Fat Possum catalogue. Pretty soon you’ll have forgotten you ever heard of Moby.