Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough
Few album concepts are as unappealing as a bunch of irony-fortified, eccentrically coifed white rockers “paying tribute” to a rural bluesman. No matter how well-intentioned, such endeavors usually come off as condescending. (“Hey, kids! You probably think all music sucked before the Pixies, but we’re here to show you that old black dudes can be awesome, too!”) Unfortunately, the ability to enjoy, unmediated, the art of someone from another race and time is apparently too much to ask of the iPod generation — or, for that matter, any previous generation. Elvis Presley begat Eric Clapton, who begat Eminem.
Leave it to Fat Possum, an Oxford, Miss.-based independent label founded by blues maniac Matthew Johnson, to take the timeworn tribute concept and turn it into something that seems not only sincere but also necessary. As Johnson writes on the back cover of Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, “Though the world doesn’t need another tribute record, it does need to know about Junior Kimbrough.” By compiling cover versions of Kimbrough’s songs by Spiritualized, the Black Keys, the Ponys, Mark Lanegan, and other idols of the white-belt set, Johnson seems intent on concocting a kind of musical gateway drug. If just one Fiery Furnaces fan picks up You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough, also on Fat Possum, Johnson’s effort will not have been in vain.
Kimbrough’s take on the blues was repetitive, primal, and trancelike, a murky, minimalist meditation on humanity in all of its grandeur and corruption. Kimbrough, who died at the age of 67 in 1998, was virtually unknown until 1991, when the late roots-music historian Robert Palmer featured him in the documentary Deep Blues. Kimbrough recorded his first full-length CD, All Night Long, the following year, and put out four more albums before his death — hardly a massive catalog, but then again, it’s something of a miracle that he found the time to release anything at all. He sired 36 children and ran a notorious juke joint off Highway 4 in Chulahoma, Miss., where he performed every Sunday night. (It burned down after he died, which seems fitting somehow.)
For the most part, the artists on Sunday Night tap into Kimbrough’s scabrous magic, the dark, dirty, Dionysian menace of his undulating guitar riffs and rough, countrified drawl. The CD is bookended by two versions of “You Better Run” by Iggy and a revamped Stooges (with ex-Minuteman Mike Watt standing in for the late Dave Alexander on bass). Both renditions are willfully obnoxious — someone needs to inform Iggy that rape isn’t one big laff-fest — but the band’s feral, sleazy, no-holds-barred approach captures the amoral abandon of the original. Spiritualized turns “Sad Days Lonely Nights” into a druggy, distorted dirge that resembles a lost Velvet Underground outtake, Thee Shams channel the early Rolling Stones for “Release Me,” and the Heartless Bastards’ version of “Done Got Old” brings to mind Janis Joplin fronting Led Zeppelin. The Black Keys are both loose and virtuosic on “My Mind Is Ramblin’,” a spacey and transcendent guitar jam that sounds like James “Blood” Ulmer gone garage; “I’m Leaving,” by the Fiery Furnaces, pits inspired fret-freakery against Eleanor Friedberger’s clear-eyed vocals. Not all of the tracks are equally strong — Pete Yorn’s “I Feel Good Again” is a well-executed yawn, and Entrance and Cat Power’s “Do the Romp” seems casual to the point of torpor — but overall Johnson did a fine job selecting worthy ambassadors. These artists not only get Kimbrough but want other people to get him, too.