Rory Block: Last Fair Deal

Justin Cober-Lake

Rory Block

Last Fair Deal

Label: Telarc
US Release Date: 2003-09-23
UK Release Date: 2003-10-27

It's hard to talk about Rory Block's music -- even after 15 records -- without talking about her gender and race, since so few white women play the Delta blues. Still, it feels anti-feminist and condescending to talk about Block in reference to her biology. On the other hand, it seems a bit circumspect to avoid these topics when they're two of the first things that strike me. It's not that Block hides these traits; in fact, she's titled earlier records High Heeled Blues, Mama's Blues, Ain't I a Woman, When a Woman Gets the Blues, Gone Woman Blues, and I'm Every Woman (a title which reveals her attempts to express a universal woman). Whether I cringe at the phrase "female blues singer" or celebrate the anti-stereotype, I have to acknowledge Block's wonderful ability to pull together history, vision, and individuality.

On her newest release, Last Fair Deal, Block mixes original blues and gospel songs with covers, integrating her tradition with her personal perspective. The woman who twice covers Robert Johnson (that old soul-selling skirt-chaser) on this record also sings "Hallelu, Hallelu" with her own gospel-style backup vocals. She also performs an astounding slide rendition of "Amazing Grace", bringing out a positive spirituality in the blues that is often only latent (at best) beneath the sex, drink, and crime of the Delta blues. This tension probably reflects the influence of Reverend Gary Davis, whom Block visited frequently in her teens.

Both of the Johnson covers show her debt to the tradition as well as her unique skills. On "Last Fair Deal Gone Down", Block stretches the song out to near twice the length of Johnson's original, maintaining the original feel of the tune while working in some of her own licks. Block stays much closer to Johnson's structure in "Traveling Roadside Blues", but she makes gives it a harder sound by pounding the strings and increasing the tempo.

"Mama's Stray Baby" might be a first in blues history. It's the true story of the Block family's rescue of a stray dog, which they subsequently raised as part of their own litter. Block has a distinct an open love for dogs (she owns four), and this song could easily have been treacly and cloying. Instead, she keeps the story earnest and subdued, and the music soft and undramatic. She fares less well with the sentimental "Two Places at a Table" about a person who has lost a long-time partner (and dedicated to someone in this situation). I don't want to be cold, but the song does not work. The music and lyrics are both uninteresting and the piece is best described as "heartwarming", in the way that Christmas specials your Grandma watches are. Block follows "Two Places at the Table" with "Awesome Love", a short instrumental work that's actually much more powerful than its predecessor, except for its title.

The album's opener, "Gone Again", hides any hints of the sentimentality to come. We first hear a car driving off and then Block starts with a fantastic riff and an ingenious, syncopated rhythmic structure. The lyrics are traditional blues thoughts on the need to "keep movin' on", but the stellar guitar work is an update on classical playing. "Sookie Sookie", the next track, gives us a hardened character in tough times. In her liner notes, Block reveals that this track grew out of an attempt "to create a song that embodied 'gals sittin' around talkin' about stuff'", but became a character study of one woman.

"Sookie Sookie" provides the quintessential example of these contemporary women applying her personal vision to a predominantly male genre. The main character isn't a stereotype but describes problems usually associated with women and not male blues singers (such as having too much domestic work, as opposed to lacking commercial work). The guitar work is skilled but standard; the lyrics are an inverse view of the blues-sufferer's world.

Rory Block continues to demonstrate her creativity within a defined tradition. She makes new lyrical insights, employs original hooks, and sings her own stories that acknowledge the customs while modifying the expression. Political insights aside, though, Last Fair Deal is just great music.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

Keep reading... Show less

The Dear Hunter: All Is As All Should Be EP

Jordan Blum
Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Although All Is As All Should Be is a tad too brief to match its precursors, it's still a masterful blend of songwriting, arrangements, and singing that satisfies the Dear Hunter anticipation.

The Dear Hunter is undoubtedly one of the best—and consequently, most egregiously underappreciated—bands of the last decade or so. Aside from 2013's Migrant LP, every one of their major releases featured an ambitious hook; for example, 2011's The Color Spectrum presented nine EPs (consisting of four songs each) that individually represented a different sonic tone (in order: Black, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, and White), whereas the five-part (so far) Act saga, with its genre-shifting arrangements, superlative songwriting, narrative complexity, and extraordinary conceptual continuity, is a cumulative work of genius, plain and simple.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.