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Various Artists | Balling the Jack (Ocho)
"There's no imagination in the Blues" David Berman proclaimed on a recent B-side and he was right. Once, admittedly, the spur for all that we now know and love as Rock 'n' Roll, the last thirty years have been unkind to the medium, seen it dulled and enervated by a host of Clapton-aping sleep guitarists or pathetic hard rock squeeze-my-lemon-types. The Blues has, indeed, a lot to answer for. Thirty years of boring twelve-bar structures and infinitesimally dull chord progressions coupled with lazy, meaningless magnetic-poetry lyrics, and hell, you know Berman's right; Blues as an idiom that's polluted popular music with repetitive and downright dull paroxysms of attempted noise. So, one is rightfully wary when unshrinkwrapping this latest package, subtitled 'The Birth of the Nu-Blues' (especially as anything prefixed with 'Nu' immediately sends shivers and portents of yawn down this particular spine) but a quick look at the track list and yes, you realise, wait a minute, I own several of the albums extracted here. Wisely separating the Claptons from the Captains (Van Vliet, that is) compiler Joe Cushley's notes point towards Beefheart and Tom Waits as the true instigators of this new blues revival or whateveryouwannnacallit and it's a wise move. So, it was with a certain trepidation that I spun this disc and despite several tracks that are exactly what you fear (Billy Childish most notably) there's plenty here that's well off the beaten path, somewhere away from the main road that leads to that famous crosspoint. Cushley has done an admirable job in compiling a wide variety of tracks that while not instantly recognisable as blues, still hold some shudder of the idiom within their limits. Full marks go to the Tom Robbins quoting Asie Payton's Oooh Baby which despite the title is an easy-flowing rapping delight. Even better is Chris Thomas King's (the guy who played Tommy Johnson in that awful Coen Bros film, you know the one) Mississippi Kkkkroassroads, an angry, bitter coruscating rap that uses the blues as a contextual historical reference point to delve into the deep waters of Southern slavery and racism with great couplets like: "He said fellows like me / Make for good decoration on his Xmas tree / He keeps heads in a trophy case / That's when I started running / Hellhounds they began to chase me." This is what the Nu-Blues should be about. Beefheart makes an appearance with the early Electricity which, while not being one of his best songs, still manages to burn some retinal material in its attempt to be the perfect acid blues number, while Tom Waits chips in with the astonishing sax and semen grunts of Big In Japan. There're are also some great selections (all previously released unfortunately) from a host of newcomers who've somehow welded old Blues forms to the fear and desolation of Country music, producing a dark, unsettling hybrid, best evinced by the Cowboy Junkies haunting Postcard Blues, Johnny Dowd's A Picture From Life's Other Side and the truly chilling and splendidly wigged-out Diamanda Galas. There's also Nick Cave's unstoppered take on Stagger Lee just in case there's not enough violence, blood and rage on this compilation for you. That said, there's several tracks that should have been buried deep underground so as not to contaminate our ears for years to come. Moby, of course, heads the list with his naff and bone-crushingly boring Find My Baby though the awful Techno-Blues of Pig In A Can is worth a mention. But any compilation's bound to impress, excite, bore and anger in equal measures and, on the whole, this one, while not refuting Berman's axiom, does point towards a certain imagination and creativity apparent in some post-blues hybrids. Oh, and thank God there's none of the White Stripes ilk of pub rock. We have one Dr. Feelgood and that's plenty for us. Omissions, if you want them, would be some Pigpen-era Grateful Dead, early Dylan, Dream Syndicate and Jon Spencer - but, as the man said, you can't license 'em all.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002