[29 June 2006]
John Lee Hooker, Jr. has a legendar father, and he knows enough to try not to follow his father’s musical style too closely. Hooker, a vocalist, performs a more structurally focused, urban style, more a descendant of B.B. King or Chicago blues than his father’s. In marking out his own space within the family, however, Hooker does little to distinguish himself within the larger blues community. The songs on his second album, Cold As Ice, are solid, with more-than-competent performances from his musicians, but they do little new (even the album’s title sounds like a lost disc from the Albert Collins catalog). Even so, Hooker’s strong voice and distinct personality make him a figure worth noting.
Both of those traits come out immediately, with “You Blew It Baby” opening the album with Hooker’s lyrics “I got a text message late last night” and quickly defining the world of this blues. The guitar and horns rattle off like any number of traditional urban blues songs, but Hookers skips the past for his present, and his vocal adds a slight wink. He delivers every line with confidence, strengthening the I-told-you-so attitude of the song and convincing us that he’s not the one losing out in this break up.
This song also shows a weakness in Hooker’s album: while he may be depicting a very personal time and place throughout the album (more on this later), he relies heavily on traditional coding, especially in the performance of masculinity. “You Blew It Baby” pits Hooker’s narrator against his ex’s new man, and we can strip down Hooker’s betterness largely to “sexual performance” and the “money in the bank”. While occasionally funny, Hooker’s lyrics too often rely on worn out tropes rather than establishing any kind of true artistic investigation.
That attitude continues throughout Cold As Ice, most obviously on the track “4 Hours Straight / Blues Man”, which combines the focus on sexual longevity with the traditional archetype of The Blues Man, with all his appetites and dangerous qualities. Here Hooker echoes his father’s ability to work a single chord for an extended period while incorporating a Muddy Waters-style riff. Unfortunately, Hooker’s meditations on his sexual stamina are neither funny nor unique enough to warrant the lengthy groove, even if Hooker claims he’s “an original, a one-of-a-kind” in his lyric. At almost nine minutes, the track becomes a bear to sit through.
With the lyrical content stripped to empty signifiers, the album becomes an endeavor in musical form in which the band doesn’t push its forms at all. Relying heavily on standard 12-bar structures and progressions, each step on the album is expected. Even so (and very fortunately), the playing is tight and the musicians fairly gifted. It’s easy to imagine these tracks shaking some staleness and becoming exciting songs in a club. Hooker struggles to establish himself with lyrical content, but he never fails to impose his personality with delivery and tone. The potential for a good live show doesn’t make for a good album, but it suggests the songs are stronger than they appear to be, and fans of B.B. King and the like will no doubt enjoy this album, even if they aren’t stunned.
Ultimately, that’s the significance of this album. It can’t be measured in terms of originality or complexity, since that’s not its ambition in the least. It can be measured in terms of enjoyment, and Cold As Ice is more or less satisfying. Hooker himself is the main draw, and when he puts his personality out there (as on the father tribute “Do Daddy”) he can succeed wonderfully, but when he sticks to performing an established role, he becomes far less interesting, and he does that too often. Its standardness eventually wears the album down, despite strong performances throughout. Cold As Ice ends up feeling almost like a tease—for a live show, for Hooker’s future—but that’s too little to earn a truly warm reception.