More than the music's stark beauty or (more believably) its trancelike guitar sound, punk and indie-rock fans have bought into Fat Possum's take on the hill-country blues because so many of them are helplessly titillated by the subgenre's perceived transgressive content (or, to be more charitable, its "authenticity"), a complicated dynamic that has everything to do with race, even if that alone doesn't sufficiently explain it. How else can you account for the marketing roles played by those grotesque animated R.L. Burnside covers, awed alt-culture media reports of T-Model Ford's sketchy bio, or the presence of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?
The late Junior Kimbrough's more stately music and less colorful persona have always seemed less susceptible to this dynamic than most of his other Fat Possum labelmates. He was a great artist with an utterly distinctive sound, certainly more worthy of a middling tribute album than most who've gotten the treatment. In fact, it's pretty easy to conjure a fantasy list of artists who might produce something compelling with Kimbrough's music as a template. My list would include guitar bands as disparate as Sonic Youth, the Drive-By Truckers, and Orchestra Baobob along with such singular blues-inspired solo artists as Bob Dylan, PJ Harvey, and Corey Harris.
You can't fault Fat Possum for not wrangling a group of performers that impressive, of course, but the problem with Sunday Nights is that the participants seem to be largely Fat Possum bands too directly connected to the style to play around with it or scenester givens who provide more subcultural cachet to the project than they do sonic chops.
The only track on Sunday Nights that captures the tremendous potential of the project is British art-rockers Spiritualized's total de(con)struction of Kimbrough's "Sad Days, Lonely Nights." Musically, this seemingly odd pairing makes some sense. Spiritualized's essentially blues-free sound is just a different brand of hypnotic guitar music and the band turns this six-minute noise-fest into a psychic (and psychedelic) connection between musicians who otherwise have absolutely nothing in common.
Nothing else on Sunday Nights quite pushes the envelope like that, but there are other winners. Memphian Jack Oblivian's relaxed, confident take on "I'm in Love With You" is the record's most rewarding straight blues. He feels at ease with the music's country roots in a way that no one else on this compilation can touch. And the molasses-slow slide-guitar duet between Entrance and Cat Power on "Do the Romp" builds up a considerable head of steam.
More earthbound but still commendable are a couple of Fat Possum bands: The Black Keys' "My Mind Is Ramblin'" is a surprisingly fine and seemingly heartfelt bit of mimicry, nailing the trembling beauty of the source material both musically and vocally. And though the vocals on the Heartless Bastards' "Done Got Old" sound a lot more Haight-Ashbury than Holly Springs, their take on one of Kimbrough's most indelible songs crunches and stomps like an ace bit of lost '60s psychedelic blues-rock.
Other youngish bands don't fare as well. Thee Shams' "Release Me" is spirited but entirely generic garage-rock. Outrageous Cherry's "Lord Have Mercy on Me" is a muddle. And, sadly, the Ponys' "Burn in Hell" is a cover that does a disservice to the artists on each end of the exchange. The Ponys are vibrant and immensely likable, but this attempt at getting slow and low to sound Old Testament-ancient just doesn't become them.
The real "get" for Fat Possum here is clearly Iggy & the Stooges. Fat Possum seems so excited to have them that they give them two slots, bookending the project with alternate takes on Kimbrough's scary "You Better Run." I count the band's 1970 proto-punk WMD Fun House among my favorite records, so I'm a fan. But this is the worst thing on Sunday Nights by far. Musically, the rumble is Raw Power dragged down by more than a little middle-aged paunch, but worse is the way Iggy preens through the song's rape-threat lyric with the kind of knowing, self-conscious leer that Mick Jagger might have pulled off in 1968 but that otherwise white hipsters should stay away from. Slipping into falsetto to sing the woman's part, he sounds like a self-satisfied ass and gives the whole album a bad aftertaste.