Various: Black Snake Moan

Various Artists
Black Snake Moan
New West

Though the movie has already garnered mixed reviews for its somewhat over-heated melodrama, the soundtrack certainly delivers. An assortment of new material and Blues and Juke-Joint standards (some of which are sung by lead actor Samuel L. Jackson) this works pretty well as a stand-alone album. Grizzled bluesman Lazarus, played by Jackson, is loosely based on the late Mississippi legend R.L. Burnside (the movie is dedicated to his memory) and the music is closer in spirit to his work than that of the country-blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson who wrote the original “Black Snake Moan”. There is the usual pointless filler material: tracks which turn out to be 30-second snippets of dialogue, brief interludes of incidental music, and Jackson’s vocals are certainly overdone, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the rest of the material. Craig Brewer’s previous feature (Hustle & Flow) centered on Southern hip-hop, and it’s apparent from this selection that music is a key source of inspiration for his movies rather than something to be grafted on to finish and polish the end product.

Jackson performs vocal duties on four of the tracks, the most successful being the mournful Burnside-penned “Just like a Bird Without a Feather”. This slow blues can’t have been the biggest stretch for Jackson’s low register sing-speak, but nonetheless he pulls it off pretty well. Burnside sideman Kenny Brown provides authentically low key guitar accompaniment which certainly helps keep the tune from ever sounding like a poor imitation, or worse, a kind of blues karaoke. Less successful by far is Jackson’s profanity strewn live re-working of blues standard “Stack O Lee” which sounds like Canned Heat fronted by Jules from Pulp Fiction. He certainly sounds like he’s enjoying himself as do the crowd who whoop along at every punchy enunciated use of “Motherfucker!” It’s horribly contrived though; what is meant to sound tough and rebellious ends up instead sounding like a ghastly parody. You can perhaps understand what the makers of the movie were thinking — get Jackson to reprise the chilling dead-pan menace of his Pulp Fiction Ezekiel speech to recount this first person account of a bar room murder. But this nuance-free piece of bombast, replete with irritatingly squally guitar fills, is empty, and frankly ridiculous. The rest of the album more than makes up for it though.

Ohio blues-rock duo the Black Keys chip in with the sludgy minimalist swamp blues of “When the Lights Go Out”, which goes to prove that less is definitely more. Hard to believe they’ve garnered comparisons with the White Stripes; apart from the fact that there are only two of them, I just can’t see it. There’s a seedy understated murkiness to their sound which recalls both John Lee Hooker and Heart Attack and Vine era Tom Waits. This compelling, primal, lurching tune just goes to show that blues music is very much a vital and relevant genre, not some dusty museum relic. Georgia singer/guitarist Precious Bryant provides further evidence for this with the aching and beautifully sung “Morning Train”. John Doe’s “The Loosing Kind” meanwhile sounds like a lost-track from the Doors L.A Woman, sharing the same languid buzz as Morrison’s “Car’s Hiss by my Window” replete with Ray Manzarek-style organ fills.

The title led me to assume this would be an album of largely Mississippi oriented country blues originals/covers so it was surprising that the net was cast relatively wide in choosing the songs. It even stretches as far as the groove laden soul-blues of Bobby Rush’s “Chicken Heads”. It would have been better though if the songs had all been by the original performers. Getting Jackson to sing seems merely to have been done for novelty value, and provides an unwelcome distraction from the rest of the quality line-up. An R.L Burnside original sung by the man himself in the form of “Old Black Mattie” highlights the limitations of the actor’s interpretations, and you suspect that unlike Jamie Foxx, who put out a solo-album on the back of his Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles, we won’t be seeing any Samuel L. Jackson records released in the near future.

RATING 6 / 10