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John Black (The Soul Of) - The Good Girl Blues Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    3
sound:    6
released:    2007
label:    Cadabra
reviewer:    Charles Andrews

ImageSometimes a man’s just gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

These three disparate albums started circling my brain six months ago like Indian warriors swooping in on a doomed wagon train.

Only, one was a Navajo, one a Mohawk, and one a … Lapp?

Yes, very – very – different, these three, yet they came together and attacked my musical psyche in a united effort. They separated themselves from the pack, from all the other CDs-I’m-considering-reviewing and became a force to be reckoned with. I am finally surrendering. I must deal with them. But two of ‘em ain’t gonna be happy they got my attention.

What a mystery! Why did this feeling persist that there was some connection among them? John Black – blues, from California; Olav Larsen – country music, from a Norwegian … a black Norwegian!; and John Reuben – a very white Midwest rapper. John Black’s blues were off-kilter, Olav sounded weird but was it his singing style or his terrible voice or just his accent, and Reuben had so much going on sonically that the fish-out-of-water pallor of his rap was only part of the puzzle. After many, many, many listens to all three (though Olav’s got less play the more annoying it became), I finally figured it out.

All three were attempting to push at the margins of their respective genres. That was easy to hear. A much harder call: that all three failed. Two, miserably – one, gloriously. I don’t know what to call these three albums, but they’re not really blues, not really country, not really rap. But wait, I caught myself. Wasn’t I imposing those same limits by even putting them in those blues-country-rap boxes? Shouldn’t I be judging what I was hearing in its own universe? Is John Black’s album lousy blues, or was I not letting it be just The Good Girl Blues, good or bad, informed by the blues but not measured within the milieu of Robert Johnson or Alexis Korner? So what if Olav’s a black guy from Norway putting his songs in a sort-of pseudo-country setting – is it a good album, good songs, good music, or not? John Reuben makes very little concession in his vocal articulation to what we’re used to rap sounding like, but he’s obviously not trying to be 50 Cent or Eminem and he sure ain’t Vanilla Ice, and his music’s noticeably different from any other rapper’s (banjo with blazing guitar in back, children’s chorus, dialog from a French-speaking female), so – does it work, or not?

Look, I’m all in favor of pushing boundaries, and some of my most-cherished musical discoveries are those which combine very different genres for a new sound that’s neither, or both, but wonderful. (Heard the new Alison Krause - Robert Plant duets? Utterly charming, maybe magical.) It’s fine with me to take the blues off into your own unique corner. But I finally decided that if you’re within that general territory that we call the blues, it’s a valid reference point. Do with it what you want. Surprise us, delight us, or maybe you’ll horrify us, but let’s be real here. Your foundation is not jazz, not calypso, not opera … it’s blues.

I couldn’t figure out what bothered me so much about Black’s approach to the blues on this album. Then it began to dawn on me. He’s making fun of it, or at least with it. His lyrics. His vocal inflections. He’s a smart-ass. You don’t have to be a slave to classic blues styles, but if you’re going to exhibit such thinly-disguised contempt for a musical style, go all out and send it up with artistry, like Devo or Loudon Wainwright III or … Fishbone …

Aha!! As soon as I remembered that John Bigham, now calling himself John Black, played guitar for a while for Fishbone, that explained a lot. You can’t spend any time in that band without having their irreverencies rub off on you. (More likely, you probably passed the audition because you showed up with your attitude already fully set.) I loved Devo and Loudon from album one and was a Fishbone fan even before the first album, from their earliest L.A. club appearances (delicious, absolute chaos). But you can’t really have it both ways. Fishbone knew the subtle difference. The Good Girl Blues doesn’t have a clue.

“Deez Blues” – what are you trying to say by singing like a simpleton,
chicken-eatin’ Stepin Fetchit who uncharacteristically pronounces door “doh” and treats the blues like an unwelcome stutter-inducing visitor? How about “One Hit,” a blatant, bastardized rip of Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line,” Black’s a somewhat lovely tune with pointlessly stupid bizarre lyrics about a junkie transvestite hooker we couldn’t possibly care about? There’s just no emotional center to any of these songs, no point of view, just … smart-assness. Black’s inventive in his arrangements, and an excellent musician, but in the service of off-putting music of no value. What a waste.

While John Black knows enough to know better, it would be easy to say Olav Larsen’s deficiencies stem from his geographical handicap. But I’m not going to give him that pass.

What he shares with Black is appallingly bad lyrics. Granted, English is not Larsen’s native tongue, but c’mon, he’s got to have some Brit or Ozzie or Yank friends or acquaintances he could run the lyrics by … someone who would tell him the truth. This is not a shopping list he’s written. He’s supposed to be a songwriter, a lyricist, and putting himself out there to be judged as such. I don’t ordinarily pay as much attention to lyrics while I’m listening as some people do, but these are just so naïve and corny that they’re distracting. Like Black, he seems to think the highest calling of song lyrics is that they rhyme, and over and over you get lines that rhyme but make no sense or hold no value as a story or thought. Just one example from Larsen: "The road may not lead you to the place you’ve dreamed of all your life/Sometimes the truth is harder, it may cut you like a knife/Was it because of her who was to become your wife." That’s not deep, it’s diddley. (As in squat, not Bo.) It’s not elegant in its simplicity, there’s no hidden meanings or metaphors – the guy just doesn’t have a very sophisticated handle on English. I’m sure I’d suck massively trying to write songs in Norwegian, but I’d get some pro advice before putting them on an album.

And how much opportunity do you have to absorb real American country music while growing up on the coast of Norway? But you know what? That’s no excuse. He listened to records his dad brought home, of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rogers, Blind Willie McTell – just like John and Paul and Mick and Keith and Eric, who never saw a black American blues man until they got so good at rockin’ the blues from the records they listened to that those blues legends became opening acts for their concerts.

There’s a lot of odd stuff on Larsen’s Love’s Come to Town, like the
clarinet (?!) and the chick singer with the U.K. accent and delivery. Again: pushing the boundaries? Don’t condemn it just because it doesn’t fit the mold? No, what damns this disc is that the music and lyrics are what they are not because of intentional experiment, but because the musicians just don’t get it. Country music may be simple, but there’s a feel, an indescribable being-attuned-with-it that is a requirement (along with minimal chops) for playing it authentically, and that’s absent from every solo, every player. They’ve learned what notes are typical for pedal steel, for fiddle, for banjo, in a country music setting, but they’re just hitting those notes, and that’s a lot different than being able to swing with it. The web site quotes country legend Howard Harlan as saying, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Well, maybe … but exactly how are you playing those three chords?

As diverse as the U.S. population has become, there still seems to be something about growing up American that ingrains a predilection and instinct for American music. (For some reason, being English/Irish/Scottish seems only a few atoms removed.) Look at how long the Japanese have loved jazz, but how many world-class players have they produced? I’m not saying Norwegians can’t play the country blues – I’m just saying these guys can’t, and offering some explanations why.

So those are the two who failed miserably, which leaves us with the guy who failed gloriously, John Reuben. I had his disc the longest. The cover looked like a Salvation Army band vet with his pooch on the Midwest plains and not an ounce of street cred, and when I threw it on and heard the music I thought great, another kid from Ohio who thinks he can rap and scraped together money for an album. Hope it didn’t cost him too much, or that he expects anyone besides his family to buy it.

Imagine my surprise when I found out this is his fifth album, and my confusion when his name kept popping up on Christian music sites. I haven’t heard any of his prior work, but you’d never guess from Word of Mouth songs that this guy has a Christian music connection. But as the sophistication of the music and words unfolded as I listened more, it was no surprise this was not a kid’s first effort.

Here’s what his MySpace bio leads with (sounds legit, but if not it’s still great PR): “The son of a Christian Death Metal Record Label owner and a Messianic Jewish father, John Reuben was raised in a trailer park on a farm
that doubled as a church/outreach program for troubled youth. John spent his formative years writing poetry, daydreaming, and turning a profit with his older brother on their baseball card collection. All of this played into his love for hip-hop and an entrepreneurial spirit that prompted him to leave high school early to focus on his musical pursuits. By the age of 18 he had started his own indie label, and released several EPs by himself and other artists.”

This is one of the most inventively eclectic and lyrically potent albums the rap genre has ever seen, so far out there musically many wouldn’t call it rap. “Make Money Money” starts with a banjo, “Focus” with plucked violins, “Miserable Exaggeration” is a gorgeous ballad with mellow acid jazz overtones – nothing is predictable, and all the odd musical experiments work beautifully. It’s truly one of those albums that reveal their treasures over time, and after laying off it for a while I was hoping it wouldn’t seem like a moment of weakness. Nope, as the title cut quips, “familiarity breeds content,” and Word of Mouth is an album I’ll have fun turning friends on to for years – cautiously, because not everyone will have the patience to absorb it.

One last word, about the words. They’re maybe the most surprising, and best jewels of this unheralded treasure. (And this from a critic who says he doesn’t always listen to lyrics.) I’m still catching bon mots I missed, and my quotable list is growing long. “I wanna win/but I don’t want to compete.” “You try too hard/you must not know who you are/ … Stop tryin’ so hard/and put both hands up in the air.” “Everybody’s got a great idea/Do you own the one you’re encouraging?” “Tomorrow we’re old/tonight we’re young/What could be more brilliant/than to just play dumb?” “Instant classics adored by critics/– it’s just music for the kids.” (All best in context, of course.)

So – I guess this is the first time ever I’ve given my wholehearted endorsement to an album that could even remotely be termed rap. And to a guy big with the Christian music crowd. Call Rodney King … maybe there is hope.

Nothing to rave about on any of the three, though the two clunkers here are below-par muddy (Black) and poorly balanced (Olav).All three have the vocals clearly on top with all words discernable – a plus for John Reuben, a big drawback for the other two.

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