[31 May 2005]
An extremely great blues guitar player, a competent and charming vocalist, untouchable on harmonica, and a musical library all by himself, John Hammond has been doing pretty much the same thing for a really long time, because he’s very good at it. This record, like any of his many records over the years, proves these things to be true once again.
Whether or not you like what he’s doing is a different matter. These days, blues music is as underrated by “serious” critics as it is overrated by “populist” critics. Hammond should not get extra pump-ups for doing “real authentic music”, but he also shouldn’t get slammed for working in the genre he has chosen, or which has chosen him. Me, I love blues music but I’m not beholden to it in any way, so I’m going to avoid that whole minefield.
So just say that Hammond knocks it on the head again. These 12 tracks swing and jive and bounce, they jump when they need to jump and they lay back when they want to lay back, and this is all a very charismatic affair. He covers Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker once, Ray Charles and Chester Burnett twice, and does three originals, or rather two originals and one original adaptation of “Jitterbug Swing”. He howls and squeals and croons and picks and wails. He’s cool.
He might be a little too cool, perhaps; some of his phrasing just seems to mimic the blues musicians he loves so much rather than being original; “Fool for You” is full of Ray-isms, but he sounds nothing like that on Willie Dixon’s “Evil (Is Going On)”. His version of Percy Mayfield’s “My Baby’s Gone” employs straight-on blues singing, but he goes all twinkly/country on Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” So maybe he doesn’t have much of an individual personality, really, even after all these years.
But, really, who cares about antiquated notions like that? Especially when the man can craft solos of such sweet off-handed elegance like the one sitting in the middle of his Dylan cover, or the stabbing haunting work he shows off in “Serve Me Right to Suffer”? And when a man can play blues harp the way Hammond does on “You Got Me Crying”, he shouldn’t be burdened with any critical notions of “originality” or “vision.” Sometimes, chops are vision enough.
And Hammond’s original songs, while hardly “original,” are damned good. “Come to Find Out” gives him the room to stretch out on soulful vocals (is he alluding to Unwound when he sings “Leaves turn inside out”?), pizzicato guitar picking, and high harmonica lines.
So yeah: a very wonderful album if you’re into blues music, but it might bore you if you’re a hater. You really should reconsider that stance, though. It’s not very becoming.