Pop Albums: RL Burnside Too Bad Jim (Fat Possum/Epitaph 0307-2)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The best blues album of last year, no contest, was the sizzling A Ass Pocket of Whisky, the one-off collaboration between RL Burnside and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - a turbulent collision of red-blooded rockabilly and black-hearted boogie. Its success has prompted Epitaph to finally release the 70-year-old Burnside's other Fat Possum recordings in Europe, starting with this slice of raw blues primitivism from 1994.

Burnside is one of the few remaining practitioners of North Mississippi hill-country blues, a juke-joint style originated by Fred McDowell and characterised by repetitive slashes of slide guitar over a backbeat provided by marching-band snare and bass drum. It's brutally simple but utterly compelling, a dark, brooding sound that locks into a groove and hangs on with grim pit-bull determination. As with the extempore blues of John Lee Hooker, matters of metre and bar-counts are decided pretty much on the hoof, accompanists following Burnside's lead, hanging on a single chord until he deems it time to change.

Several tracks derive from the same Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf roots that inspired the early Captain Beefheart classics (".44 Pistol", for instance, is a fairly straight re-take of the Wolf's "Forty-Four"), while Burnside's lyrical interests, on tracks like "Death Bell Blues", are intimately concerned with violence, deceit, mortality and retribution - the authentic emotional mulch of backwoods blues. It's haunting, hangdog stuff: approach with caution.