Corey Harris has long been hailed as one of contemporary blues' most promising young performers, but maybe it's finally time to put that label to rest. After all, contemporary blues is a relatively conservative and tight-knit scene, and Harris is one remarkably expansive musician. In reality, Harris' relationship to the blues is about the same as Los Lobos' to East L.A. garage rock and Mexican folk or Wyclef Jean's to hip hop -- it's a mere starting point. And Harris deserves the wider commercial audience those artists have found, not just the limited audience of self-professed blues fans.
Harris has also long been connected with Memphian Alvin Youngblood Hart, with whom he shares a blues base that expands broadly. But the differences are crucial. Hart is a great American roots artist, his tastes straying most frequently into classic rock and outsider country. Harris, obvious from his newest and best album, Downhome Sophisticate, is a different breed. Crafted out of the cultural gumbo of New Orleans (the Denver native's adopted home) and informed by Harris' studies in the Caribbean and West Africa, Downhome Sophisticate places Harris in the company of artists such as globe-trotting troubadour Manu Chao and Punjabi Londoner Tjinder Singh (aka Cornershop) -- new-breed "world music" performers, artists who make cultural collision sound natural and inevitable, groovy and gorgeous.
With crucial help from collaborator Jamal Millner (Harris' band, apparently called the 5x5, deserves equal billing here), Downhome Sophisticate is pan-African-diaspora pop (with Harris' vocals occasionally venturing into French or reggae patois) rooted in the African-American blues tradition, taking sonic gambles on virtually every track and never once faltering. The opening "Frankie Doris" mixes hip-hop-bred beats, '70s-soul background vocals, and Stax horns into a relentlessly hyped-up mix, while Harris cements the record as a sort of P-Funk version of the country blues with the political sloganeering of: "I'm gon' takes my taxes/Buy me some axes/Drive my car up to Chocolate City/Go to the White House/Make it my house/You know my people built it for free."
As a signature anthem, "Frankie Doris" is topped only by the title track, which sounds like Arrested Development gone avant-garde. With the concept implied by the title lending focus to the music itself, it's as close to a statement of principles as Harris has come. Harris' own fearlessly awkward rapped vocals rise over a bed of music containing what sounds like one of those ubiquitous Jackson Five piano samples (except, in this case, it's played live), vintage-sounding background vocals that Moby would kill to borrow, and drum-and-bass interplay that sounds like a perpetual-motion machine. And "Fire" may be the most compelling pop moment yet to reference 9/11, reliving the scene with a biblical sense of weirdness and foreboding -- like an ancient tribal version of '60s acid-rock.
Harris also branches out with the epic calypso of "Sista Rosa" and the directly Caribbean and West African flavors of "Santora," a song that tersely illustrates the racial tensions bound up in a chance police encounter and that makes its social critique and hip-hop influence explicit with the reprise "F'shizza (Santoro Remix)," in which Harris introduces two MCs who can actually rap.
Not that Harris doesn't make his commitment to the blues tradition explicit as well. "Money On My Mind" is electrified Delta blues with a guitar riff and overactive rhythm that evokes the standard "Baby Please Don't Go" -- but spiked with ghostly background vocals that dredge up a haunted past ("Down in Court Square I was chained to the block," the narrator sings). "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" is gutbucket gospel featuring rough call-and-response vocals and a piercing blues-guitar solo. "Don't Let the Devil Ride" is punctuated by soaring leads à la Elmore James, while the instrumental "BB" is a bit of bar blues that rides along on guest Henry Butler's barrelhouse piano.
If there's a weakness here, it's in the lack of full-fledged songs -- lyrically, this is mostly a collection of sketches. The rootsy sound-over-sense approach and perpetual groove of this record would seem to appeal to jam-band fans, except the music is much more fierce and focused than anything you'll find in that scene. As pure sound -- and pure sound as emphatic cultural mission -- it's a tour de force. I haven't heard anything else this year that sounds nearly as good. --Chris Herrington
The Best of
A notable sideman for Ray Price and George Jones before going solo, Johnny Paycheck had all the skills necessary to develop into the greatest honky-tonk singer of all time. He also had a mean streak and an appetite for self-destruction that rivaled even the most notorious country-music hell-raisers, so much so that Paycheck's personality problems, not his lack of talent, kept him from fulfilling his potential.
Paycheck is most famous for his cover of David Allen Coe's cartoonish working man's anthem "Take This Job and Shove It," and, commercially speaking, precious little attention has been paid to his earlier body of work. The Real Mr. Heartache, a compilation of recordings for the Hilltop and Little Darlin' labels, proved that Paycheck was the unquestioned king of black, sardonic country. Tracks like "He's In a Hurry (He Has To Get Home To My Wife)," "Pardon Me, I've Got Someone To Kill," and "It Won't Be Long and I'll Be Hating You" are certainly comical in an over-the-top way, but the dark humor in no way diminishes their impact. Still, most of these recordings fell into obscurity, and Paycheck continued to work primarily as a sideman until "Take This Job and Shove It" broke in 1977.
Nothing on The Soul & The Edge, a new collection of Paycheck hits from the '70s and '80s, can compare to the distinctive, hard-edged whine of his earlier work. Even tracks that play into the artist's outlaw image ("I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised" being the best and most exciting example) are broad caricatures compared to the genuine meanness he'd shown at Little Darlin'. Odd, funk-influenced arrangements, an excess of horns, and intrusive harmonica-blowing muddle many tracks. Redneck soul ballads like "Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets" and "She's All I Got" lurch in the direction of Ray Price's decidedly soulful country but land on the softer side of '70s pop.
But that's not to say The Soul & The Edge has nothing to offer. The swinging retro lament of "Barstool Mountain" is a nice reminder of just how well Paycheck once combined humorous imagery with pathos. "The Outlaw's Prayer," a monologue about a contrite hillbilly singer who isn't allowed in a church because of his long beard and hair, calls to mind any number of Red Sovine's famous talkers, while "11 Months and 29 Days" (the amount of time it's going to take the protagonist to get sober) is a prison song worthy of Haggard or Cash.
With 23 tracks of latter-day Paycheck, The Soul & The Edge wears out its welcome long before the final notes fade. Much of the material here has been included on other compilations, and a number of tracks (notably a pair of Haggard covers and a forgettable duet with George Jones on "You Better Move On") hardly merit rerelease. However, for newer country fans who are interested in Paycheck but aren't interested in possessing his entire back catalog, The Soul & The Edge makes a perfect companion to the extraordinary The Real Mr. Heartache. -- Chris Davis