[15 May 2012]
R&B/blues musician Andre Williams (born in 1936) has definitely been around. He’s worked with Berry Gordy and (Little) Stevie Wonder, for instance. But he’s also been through hard times—violent altercations, jail terms, drug addictions—a reservoir of living which he draws on in his latest effort, Night & Day. He’s teamed up once again with the psychedelic-country outfit the Sadies to deliver a collection of gritty, unapologetic songs of conflict and perseverance.
The opener “I Gotta Get Shorty Out of Jail” comes off as dirty-lounge blues, Williams’ raspy voice immediately setting the stage. Atmosphere-wise this is hardboiled, rough-and-tumble noir, and I’m reminded of some of Tom Waits’s characters, except that Williams doesn’t seem to be acting “I like my rum ‘cause I ain’t got no teeth / I let it float over my gums / But I got to get Shorty out of jail,” he sings. The theme of incarceration comes up again in the misogynist “Your Old Lady”, where Williams reluctantly offers to “give back” the former lover of an acquaintance (“Charley”) who has recently been released from prison. Williams occasionally zooms out from such immediate dilemmas, as on “America”, where he almost gets political. But the tone here is mostly cowboy/ex-con anomie—Williams appears to be a man who is too strong to turn a new leaf. “I don’t use drugs no more, but I will if I have to,” he defiantly mutters on “Bored”. And “I Thank God” begins as a song of redemption but winds into a meditation on how to get out of jail. “Aint no fun goin’ to jail,” he reminds us.
Williams’s gruff narratives are backed by one heck of a band. The Sadies, masterful songwriters in their own right, offer sizzling support. Their manic-rodeo sound and energy doesn’t just serve as a backdrop, though. They seem at times to push Williams even further, as on the pulsing “One Eyed Jack”. Jon Spencer, Matt Verta-Ray (Heavy Trash), Danny Kroha (The Gories) and Jon Langford (The Mekons) also lend hands, and Sally Timms and Kelly Hogan nicely round things out, their warm harmonies certainly the only signs of sweetness in this hard wasteland. The country-waltz duet between Williams and Timms on “That’s My Desire” is one of the album’s highlights.
Night and Day is not for the faint of heart, and one can only be perplexed by some of Williams’s musings. “The mens are dogs / The women are hogs, but that ain’t a bad thing / It’s better than living in Africa,” he rambles on “America”. I suspect, though, that the fearlessness with which he veers away from the politically correct is one of the reasons he’s developed such a cult following. He seems almost to be making the lyrics up as he goes, a no-holds-barred stream-of-consciousness expression, which is often a treat to witness. We get to walk, a little, with a grizzled vet who’s seen it all and yet is still hungry.