The blues is food for worms. Dead. Axe-murdered by Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and their ilk, who captured the form in the late '60s and sold the world on a recipe of guitar-first, groove-second, song-last. But the blues was never exclusively about shred-uber-alles; it was about song-and-groove. In the hands of Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, the results were transcendent and true, without the showboating.
Which makes it hard not to feel nostalgic when faced with MCA's reissue of John Lee Hooker's early '50s Chess recordings. Here is the thirtysomething Hooker, whose "Boogie Chillen" was a dance hall hit in 1948, grooving like a train heading across the fertile crescent of American music -- Memphis to New Orleans. Most of the collection's 31 cuts are good original material. They generally eschew the familiar 12-bar/three-chord structure in favor of unique, intoxicating 16/1. Hooker keeps ever-changing time with his feet, stabs simply and fiercely at his guitar, and uncorks a string of songs about gutting the vicissitudes of existence.
When Hooker made these primal and primitively recorded blues for Chess between 1951 and 1954 he was new to the North and, in the context of the urban reinvention of the music going on at the studio at the time, was on the verge of becoming a stylistic anachronism. Indeed, there are several tracks where he tries his hand -- unsuccessfully -- at jump blues and small combos. But when Hooker sticks to the Delta, he has the kind of hypnotic immediacy that must have been acquired in the juke joints of yore -- where you either got people dancing or caught a bottle of Dixie in the forehead.
Still, the non-musicologist will eventually ask: What do the blues have to do with 1998? The answer: not much. Hooker, now in his 80s, has little to do with the blues anymore. He's a figurehead, churning out diluted albums such as The Healer and Mr. Lucky, owning a San Francisco club, wearing star-emblazoned dress socks, and reminiscing in print interviews about what it was like in the day. The blues, at least in its post-Delta emanations, has become a catechism: the kind of cultural material you're not supposed to question. But if the blues wants to jump out of its present grave, and show the kind of power its many boosters claim it has, then it could do infinitely worse than look to Hooker's four-decade-old Chess sides as a fountain of youth.
-- Philip Dawdy
Hell Comes to Your House
The 1981 punk compilation Hell Comes to Your House documents a moment in time when the burgeoning Southern California punk scene -- then awash in a darker style of guttural guitar chords, sporadic theatrical keyboards, and gruff vocals -- began a slow splintering into pure goth, death rock, and surf-influenced punk. The compilation, out of print since 1986 and recently rereleased, is an auditory Polaroid of the last time these three fragments of punk shared common musical ground.
A rough sketch of Social Distortion's trademark melodic, riff-heavy punk emerges from "Lude Boy," the band's earliest and rarest offering. "Telling Them," the group's other song on the comp, presents a grittier, stripped version of Social Distortion still searching for the sound they would perfect on 1982's "1945" 7-inch -- the record that would keep getting made by bands like Bad Religion and Youth Brigade.
The rest of what in earlier times would have been side one continues with "Puss 'n' Boots," from Red Cross. (This was before the band was forced to change its name to Redd Kross.) The track, which was released only on HCTYH, foreshadows the pop punk that Redd Kross would rehash throughout their career. Rounding out side one are two songs each by Secret Hate and the Conservatives. Secret Hate's "Deception" -- a bass-driven tune peppered with guitar notes like shattered glass -- hints at emerging death rock. In odd contrast to that dark mood, the Conservatives play the loose, almost twangy guitars popular with the Adolescents and Agent Orange, other SoCal punks toying with surf tunes.
Side two's opening three tracks -- "Evil," "Concerned Citizen," and "45 Grave" -- could be extracted, packaged separately, and labeled "Fundamentals of Death Rock by 45 Grave." These tracks' fluid metallic sound, rounded out by pulsing keyboards and poisonous lyrics, launched the once-potent career of 45 Grave; but they also arguably spurred the creation of the L.A. death rock scene. The compilation further delves into the darker side of L.A. punk with Christian Death, featuring original singer Rozz Williams and guitarist Rikk Agnew (on loan from D.I. and the Adolescents), who outlined the funereal stylings of American goth proper with "Dogs" (the band's first song ever). Both groups refute purists who say that American goth owes everything to British bands such as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, and Bauhaus. Goth may have begun with those imports, but the unique sound showcased here created a key template for the dark American music that was to come.
-- Robert Arriaga
When the Funk Hits the Fan
On the debut When the Funk Hits the Fan, King Britt, the Philadelphia-based DJ, creates a soundtrack to a nonexistent movie with a group he calls Sylk 130. Britt describes the plot and the setting in the liner notes. It's essentially a period piece about the late '70s in West Philly's 5-6 district -- something like a 1970s sequel to Cooley High, the coming-of-age film set in 1960s Chicago.
The late '70s were the apogee of Philadelphia's diverse contributions to pop music. Philadelphia International acts like the O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, MFSB, and Billy Paul made the songs of Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff into R&B classics. Before that, the city was a hotbed for jazz musicians in the '50s, '60s, and the '70s, the home of talents ranging from Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, and McCoy Tyner to the Brecker Brothers, Grover Washington Jr., and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. This rich musical legacy informs Britt's album.
Britt's flaw is not musical, it's structural. The pseudo-soundtrack fails to unify two different narrative threads: reminiscences of high school, and, a few years later, perils that clubgoers meet on the way to the Cosmic Lounge. Rather than a soundtrack to a film, When the Funk plays better as a companion CD to a gallery exhibition of documentary photographs from that era.
Nonetheless, the album works. Britt invests so much energy into detail that he bypasses two potential pitfalls: He is neither mawkishly nostalgic, nor is he didactically historical, aiming to link today's trends with the music of 20 years ago. Britt got to this point by spinning with Digable Planets for two years, then remixing tracks by Tori Amos, Paula Cole, and Zap Mama. Now, his music flows with the smoothness of a Roy Ayers recording from the days of the Carter administration. The uptempo, grinding tunes, like "Jimmy Leans Back," surf along billowy bass lines that use all the reverb that today's hip-hop "bounce" beats lack. "The Reason" features a wholesale loop of Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown," but this jazzy sample is made more elegant by the lustrous vocals of Vicki Miles. There is a nod to the nascent genre of hip hop: The rap in "Taggin' and Braggin' " is entirely on the beat, as if it owes as much to Gil Scott-Heron as to Kool Herc, but the time line is thrown off a bit in the rap to their cover of In Deep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," where the cadence is self-consciously patterned after the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight." In between these tracks are sumptuously appointed yet aggressive jazz-funk cuts highlighted by Tacuma and a variety of local jazz artists.
Britt spends a lot of time establishing mood and setting, but it's odd that the DJ doesn't try to use this as a jumping-off point for a larger argument about music. Here, it seems, he's content to say that the Cosmic Lounge is the place to be.
-- Martin Johnson