When it comes to the blues, nobody releases better stuff than the folks at Fat Possum. They've got gobs of punk-ass attitude (best exemplified in their rallying cry "not the same old blues crap"), are distributed by blues-loving old school punks at Epitaph, and are fully invested in the blues-as-chaos aesthetic -- which means recording such unregenerate, unpolished, and socially dysfunctional talents as T-Model Ford (a personal favorite), the late great Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside. So deeply are they (and many other Fat Possum artists) rooted in the desperation, turbulence, poverty, and violence often associated with the blues (something that Fat Possum turns into a troubling marketing campaign) that the willful primitivism of the resulting recordings resembles the reclamation of a dead language, instead of the frat party boogie crap (brilliantly satirized in Terry Zwigoff's film Ghost World) that too frequently passes for the blues.
All of the above makes the release of John "Jojo" Hermann's Defector that much harder to explain. He's got blues chops, hangs out with legend Jim Dickinson's hip kids Luther and Cody (members of the North Mississippi All-Stars), and since 1992 has played keyboards in bluesy, jam-band Widespread Panic. Perhaps this is Fat Possum's attempt to reach the pot and patchouli twentysomething hippie crowd? I don't really know, and frankly, I don't really care. What's true about Defector is that there's not much to it. It's polite, inoffensive, and at a hair over 38 minutes doesn't overstay its welcome, but that's praise of the faintest sort. Hermann's a deft keyboard player and guitarist, but he's a woeful singer (think of a less tuneful version of NRBQ's Joey Spampinato) which is not surprising when you consider that singing is apparently not a valued skill in jam-band culture.
Defector's charms are few and fleeting. The opening track "Mrs. Brown", built upon some Byrdsy guitar jangle has pop appeal, but suffers from a lackadaisical and instantly forgettable arrangement. "Smokin' Factory", despite it tantalizing title, is the record's most overtly Phish-like track and it's easy to imagine that when done live it could stretch out for 20-plus minutes -- but it would probably be time wasted. I liked the sardonic self-pity infusing "Step on over Me ("Just step on over me darling / If my life gets in your way") but, as with everything else, was left wanting more. It wasn't until "When It's My Time", that I heard a little blood and grime ooze from this disc. But as much as Hermann tries to sell the song's undercurrent of desperation and violence with his wan voice, I couldn't help but think how great this song might have sounded like had R.L. Burnside or, better yet, Johnny Cash gotten hold of it.
Look, Widespread Panic fans and hardcore jam-band folks reading this will think I'm full of shit because I don't get it. Well, maybe I don't, but what's to get? This scene (including the much venerated Phish) has produced precious little good rock music by indulging in the worst inclinations of post-Dead hippie music culture. As for Fat Possum, well, no one's immune from releasing a dud from time to time. So until the label's next offering, I'm digging out my Asie Payton CD's and spending some time with the blues.