Various Artists: Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough
Giving Junior Kimbrough props is noble, but don't expect much of this tribute to sound quite like the unheralded blues master. This is a show of respect, not an album of mimicry.
The above title of said review is a quote by North Mississippi native Charlie Feathers, a rockabilly guitarist who was one of many people who were touched by the influence of (David) Junior Kimbrough. Kimbrough was also a mentor to Feathers, and the two of them spent many hours just jamming together -- they even cut a couple of sides together ("Release Me", which appears on Kimbrough's greatest hits collection (You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough, and "I Feel Good Again", which can be found on the compilation Not the Same Old Blues Crap II). But Feathers' simple statement summed up Kimbrough's style of blues clearly and concisely: it was simple, repetitive, groove-laden, trance blues. The hypnotic capabilities of Junior's music belied a style that was African in its roots (though in its native setting, it was the polyrhythmic drums that were the repetitive focal point), yet retained a powerful undercurrent that sometimes belies description. Yet Kimbrough's music was simplistic in its purpose: you either got it or you didn't get it -- there are no grey areas here. This kind of blues is, in a way, a thinking person's blues. You had to use your noodle to realize that there were no hidden meanings or agendas to this style (dubbed "North Mississippi Hill Country" blues). And the key (and irony) is to not think once the music starts, and just let your natural instincts take over. Those instincts led one's body to move and groove as Kimbrough's sounds hypnotized and infiltrated everyone's personal space and surrounding atmosphere by sheer force and with total joy.
The above title is also etched on Kimbrough's headstone. Yes, Junior died in 1997 of heart failure at the age of 67. Those in the know of Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, and the entire roster of Fat Possum Records (guilty) know exactly what Kimbrough meant to the blues. But nowadays, blues music is attached to the same tired, non-descript acts who, deep in their heart, try to emulate the blues legends of the past. The problem is that deep in a listener's ears, most of those people sound like bad Karaoke retreads. Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson was nudged towards Kimbrough by the late Robert Palmer (no, not the "Addicted to Love" Robert Palmer; the ethnomusicologist Robert Palmer), who first brought Kimbrough to light in the awesome documentary of Mississippi blues, Deep Blues. Johnson found Kimbrough's music to be perfect for the credo of his new label, and Palmer produced Kimbrough's first effort for Fat Possum, the blues masterpiece All Night Long. (When it's my turn to do the "My Favorite Thing" on this site, you'll learn all about All Night Long.)
Palmer also produced Kimbrough's second Fat Possum outing, Sad Days Lonely Nights. The label put out one more Kimbrough album before his death, Most Things Haven't Worked Out, and they had enough tape to cobble together two more post-death efforts, God Knows I Tried, and the mix of raw demos and live stuff, Meet Me in the City. HMG Records tried to capitalize on the sudden popularity of Kimbrough (Cutthroat label business? Nah . . . ) with recordings Kimbrough made between 1982 and 1988, as Do the Rump was released in 1998. Lastly, the previously mentioned hits package proved a concise testimony to the power of trance blues. And with all that, Johnson felt that more people who weren't quite in the know needed to hear what Kimbrough was all about. So Johnson, who generally detests tribute albums (and mainstream stuff in general), got some of those musicians who were certainly fans of Kimbrough to do their personal interpretations of any Kimbrough song. The result is Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough. At first blush, it's a wonderful concept, what with all those who appear on here. The drooling commences with Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and saliva glands work overtime with some of the other names, such as Spiritualized, Blues Explosion (Jon Spencer's group), the Black Keys, Cat Power (with Fat Possum artist Entrance), Mark Lanegan, and Jim White.
Anyone who listens to this collection of 16 songs must bear one key element in mind: these are the artist's interpretations of Kimbrough's songs. To put it politely, not every song tries to sound like the original; in fact, few do. But then again, outside of Kimbrough's son David Malone, who can play and sing (scarily) exactly like his dad, the only artist who has attempted to cover Kimbrough in the past with any success has been Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. The Keys do a cover of Junior's "Everywhere I Go" on thickfreakness that's so dead-on, it produces spinal shivering. (Kimbrough must channel through Auerbach.) The key here is that this album is more intended for those outside the Kimbrough circle, because some of these covers will make Kimbroughists (new term) shake their heads in disbelief. And outside the Keys' contribution, most of the better stuff is from the bands you may not be familiar with.
Pop, who took Kimbrough on tour with him as an opening act, clearly wanted to go balls-out with his cover of "You Better Run", which opens the album. It's pure Stooges -- frantic, loud, and insane rock and roll. Pop takes great pleasure in imitating the woman whose destiny was initially due for an unhappy ending. It's theatrical Stooges at its best. But oddly, there's a second cover of the same song by the Stooges that closes the disc -- a much bluesier version, with limited lunacy. (Pop was asked to do two songs for the package, and he chose to do two versions of "You Better Run".) Perhaps he wanted to do one version his way, and another the way Junior would have done so. Spiritualized certainly went with their own brand of "Sad Days Lonely Nights", with a loud squawking keyboard and a continuous 2/4 drumbeat as the foundation of the song, as a guitar snakes in and out of the noise. It's certainly one tune that Spiritualized fans will love, but Kimbrough fans will likely hate, since the comparison between the original and the interpretation ends with the song's title. But remember, the main goal is to get Junior's name out to a wide-ranging audience -- initiating the uninitiated, if you will.
One of the first pleasant surprises is a group called the Heartless Bastards (debut album out in February, 2005 . . . on Fat Possum). The lead (female) singer croons the song over a bold and stylistically brassy musical background -- sort of like Peggy Lee-style swagger-meets-punk. (Listen to the song -- you'll understand.) The Black Keys turn in yet another yeoman-like effort on "My Mind is Ramblin'". The Fiery Furnaces do a catchy version of "I'm Leaving", giving it more swing than the original. But the absolute killer surprise is none other than Pete Yorn, whose "I Feel Good Again" (one of the Feathers/Kimbrough collaborations) swings and powers its way through -- it's catchy as hell and fun too -- and will cause a lot of asses to swivel and shake. Entrance and Cat Power unite to do a slow, slinky version of "Do the Romp". One of Kimbrough's biggest and most notable songs is "All Night Long", and Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan gives it a slow and low swagger, a 180-degree turn from Kimbrough's uptempo, raucous version.
Another group in the Fat Possum stable is the garage band known as Thee Shams, and their version of the Kimbrough/Feathers song "Release Me" has enough speed and blues swagger to make this one of the top choices on the album. A second version of "Done Got Old" is covered by seminal vocalist Jim White. It's not as ballsy as the Heartless Bastards' cover, but more of a quieter experience, with swirling organ as one of the key instruments. Outrageous Cherry takes a crack at "Lord Have Mercy on Me", and comes across as a somewhat psychedelic flashback from the 60's. "Pull Your Clothes Off" is given the rock treatment by Whitey Kirst, though the guitar does work the repetitive chordal run into the fabric of the song. Jack Oblivian keeps things simple with "I'm in Love with You", and the Ponys push the smoldering "Burn in Hell" down one's throat.
As an unabashed admirer of Junior Kimbrough, I hope this album spreads the gospel like a wildfire in a dry forest. The biggest problem for Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough is whether people who like these interpretations will love the originals, since the originals are so much different in style, sound, recording, etc. Also, most tribute releases tend to honor more "known" artists, so listeners can make fairly easy comparisons between originals and interpretations. Then again, any publicity is usually good publicity, so perhaps this CD will ignite the fuse that will cause some semblance of a Kimbrough explosion. But the one thing you have to give Johnson is his cocksureness. On the label's website, you can order this CD (or any of the Kimbrough releases) with this promise: if you don't like the CD, you can return it for a full refund. That's how sure Johnson is that once you hear what Junior was all about, you'll be hooked. And if you decide to take Johnson up on the offer, the best two places to start exploring the real Junior Kimbrough would be the aforementioned greatest hits package or All Night Long. But for those who want to ease into his essence, Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough is a very good starting point.