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John Lee Hooker

Jealous

(Shout Factory; US: 17 Jul 2007; UK: Available as import)

John Lee Hooker

Don't Look Back

(Shout Factory; US: 17 Jul 2007; UK: Available as import)

John Lee Hooker had an almost ridiculous catalog of albums made for a number of labels (Chess, Vee-Jay, Stax, King, Impulse!, etc.) by the time the 1980s rolled around, and quite frankly, the decade had nothing particularly novel to offer the then-septuagenarian bluesman. Hooker’s distinct strain of primal, meditative blues was unusually resistant to the progressive advances of technologically-aware times. In fact, the less one tried to make a John Lee Hooker recording sound “contemporary”, the better. Hooker’s style was visceral but basic, a moody one-chord vamp made of swampy guitar, steady foot, and half-spoken vocals that favored trance-like repetition. It almost seemed disrespectful to dress up this kind of amplified folk music in the spangles of modern-day studio savvy.


The production aesthetic of the ‘80s wasn’t very kind to many of the musicians with pre-existing formulas and guises, especially those unsullied by the synthetic styles of the times. (Some musicians, like Michael Jackson and Prince, used the decade’s taste-defiant hard bargain to successfully reinvent themselves.) In terms of the sound of a recording alone, Hooker’s Jealous, an album recorded in 1982 but not released until 1987, is one of the multitude of casualties wrought by the convergence of raw ideals and the emptiness of contemporary methodologies.


Jealous was recorded with Hooker’s touring band at the time, but any sparks of chemistry are doused by the thin, lifeless sound of synthetically-rendered instrumentation. (That instrumentation includes slap/pop bass guitar, which is as far from a complementary sound for Hooker’s drone-boogie as you’re gonna get.) So while Hooker kicks up dust with the upstroke boogie rhythms of his legend on songs like “Boogie Woman” and even downshifts to a more generic shuffle for “I Didn’t Know” and the title track, the recordings themselves are devoid of warmth and pulse, or even the gritty realism of his earlier, seminal work. Here, things are polished to a sheen that’s not so much nauseating as it is dull.


Two years later, Hooker would ignite a late-period revival on the cultural radar with the release of The Healer, a star-studded record that predicted the cameo-laden Santana Effect with guest spots by Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Los Lobos, and Santana himself. That second wind (Hooker’s first real renaissance since his idolization by ‘60s British rock bands and a 1970 pairing with Canned Heat) would continue on throughout the ‘90s and include a handful of albums, culminating with 1997’s Don’t Look Back, his last new studio record to be released before his death in 2001.


Don’t Look Back was co-produced by Van Morrison, one of Hooker’s intermittent collaborators, who attempts to pull Hooker into his own orbit of circular progressions and vocal repetitions. It almost works, but Hooker gets lost in Morrison’s “The Healing Game”, where his mumbled vocal repetitions sound less like the product of a trance and more like disorientation. Hooker revives some of his early signature vamps like “Dimples”, but that recording in particular is an unnecessary gesture that can’t hold a candle to the original Vee-Jay side from the ‘50s. Likewise, a deathly cover of “Red House”, the blues standard popularized by Jimi Hendrix, carries none of the earthly weight that hung around the beams of Hooker’s formative years. This, of course, is no fault of Hooker’s, or anyone else recording alongside him—he was merely a man not made for those times, but made to perform in them.

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Zeth Lundy has been writing for PopMatters since 2004. He is the author of Songs in the Key of Life (Continuum, 2007), and has contributed to the Boston Phoenix, Metro Boston, and The Oxford American. He lives in Boston.


Tagged as: john lee hooker
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