662 Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (Alligator) *****++
In 2019 Christone’s debut album was my #1 record of the year overall. Here in 2021, the now 22 year old Mississippi bluesman has released another masterpiece. 662, also the area code of his hometown of Clarksdale, is a more mature and personal piece of work; full of startlingly excellent musicianship and the most soulful voice in the blues today.
PBS NewsHour says Ingram “represents the next generation of great American blues artists” and Guitar World calls him “the future of the blues, singing and playing with edge, verve and vitality”, and I couldn’t agree more. In my 30 years of writing reviews I’ve often found than an artist really makes their bones on their 2nd album, where you find out if that great first album was a fluke. I’m happy to report that with 662 Ingram is the real deal with a set of deep and gritty songs that surpass his excellent debut. “There’s been much change, happiness and despair in my life” Christone says of the last 2 years. Right as his career was taking off he lost his mother, Princess Pride Ingram, then toured the world for 13 months until the pandemic put a stop to that. In between the two records he released 3 stand alone singles; in February 2020, incendiary studio and live versions of Michael “Iron Man” Burks’ Empty Promises. In July of that year Rock & Roll as a tribute to his mother (included here as a bonus track), and in November the instant holiday classic Ghost From Christmas Past.
662 was co-written and produced, as was his debut, by the ubiquitous Tom Hambridge (Foghat, Buddy Guy), who also played drums. While at least the equal of Christone’s debut this is very much a different record. “The world was introduced to me with Kingfish” Ingram says of his chart topping debut, which landed on the Billboard blues chart at #1 and remained on the chart for an astonishing 91 weeks. “Now with 662 I want the world to hear and meet a different, more personal side of me. (This album) is a direct reflection of my growth as a musician, a songwriter, a bandleader and as a young man.”
662 is a stone cold killer of an album, righteous grooves abounding, and an exciting second step on what will prove to be a long, glorious journey. In 50 years when they mention great blues albums of our era, this will be talked about first and often… and no doubt Christone will be on stage somewhere, still blazing new trails in the blues.
KEY CUTS: 662, Rock & Roll, Another Life Goes By, Your Time Is Gonna Come
RAZOR BLADE SMILE Emily Duff (independent) **** ½
That cover photo and album title give you a good idea of what to expect here. Emily Duff is no gingham clad country ingénue with sad tales of unrequited love. Razor Blade Smile is about as safe as a nest of rattlesnakes and just as likely to hit you upside the head like a bag of rolled up quarters. This is real honest-to-God shit-kickin’ country music.
Duff was born in New York City, made her bones as a Muscle Shoals songwriter, and No Depression accurately sums her up as “a purveyor of tough sounds for tough love. You wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of it, but it makes for some mighty fine eavesdropping.” These songs were penned during the pandemic of course, and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel produced the sessions at a studio in Brooklyn. He was able to bring a band together with the help of Audiomovers Technology, to safely assemble this wildcat assortment of tunes into a pretty impressive album.
Razor Blade Smile is a perfect mix of punk rock poetry and contemplative country soul, songs about real life without the saccharine ‘oh everything will work out in the end’ attitude that infects so many modern country songs. The record can be classified as Americana as much as it can country or country/ rock. It encounters the tragic but true reality that our dreams often become nightmares, all with a barbed wire grin. The grit of the electric guitars matches Emily’s well worn voice and observations, a match made in heaven- well, at some skeevy late night juke joint at least.
Razor Blade Smile has the truth and heartbreak of the best country with a decidedly rock & roll attitude- that becomes abundantly clear on the disc opener Go Fast Don’t Die. I think it would also be fair to say RBS would likely appeal to people that aren’t necessarily country fans. It’s an invigorating set of songs; Duff could have just as easily called it Attitude & Balls. Great record here, not to be taken for granted.
KEY CUTS: Go Fast Don’t Die, Angry To Bed, Nicotine & Waiting
ROCKET RIDE Broke Fuse (independent) ****
This album came along June 25th, exactly one year after 2020’s excellent Why Should I Be Blue? Like its predecessor, Rocket Ride was recorded at the home of BF mastermind Jay Moonah, with remote contributions (thanks, Covid) from a variety of musicians. It’s also a step forward stylistically and sonically, a sweet trip for blues fans of every stripe.
“ I wanted to bring more rock ‘n’ roll energy, but also try some different things and take some risks” Jay says of the new album. “My own tastes are pretty broad, so with the blues as a foundation I wanted to see how far I could take the music in different directions.” Broke Fuse is an entertaining mix of jaunty blues/rock tunes, adventurous harmonica instrumentals and sensitive, introspective numbers that hang well together.
When I first threw Rocket Ride on, the production took some getting used to, particularly the slightly muffled sound of the drums and vocals, but was taken away in the energy and joy of the performances. The 3 harmonica instrumentals included- The Stephenson Swamp, Agitation, Los Detailles del Diablo-each in a different style, are a welcome change of vibe for the record. “Yeah, I like to try different things” Moonah laughs. “”The instrumentals in particular kind of go from acoustic blues to progressive rock to my take on Latin music. They were great fun to put together, as was the whole album.”
That feeling Jay speaks of is just one of the things that makes Rocket Ride so cool. Broken Fuse covers many of the traditional blues subject matters throughout the course of the album, but this is hardly down n dirty or hard time blues, it’s a rockin’ celebration of life. When I spoke with Alligator Records founder Bruce Igaluer back in June he told me “when I came to Chicago, somebody said to me don’t think the blues is a sad music, you listen to the blues to get rid of the blues.” He was right on the money, and Rocket Ride is a prime example of that. This puppy is excellent company.
KEY CUTS: Rocket Ride, The Ballad Of Sonny Shade, Stingray Blues
MODERN PRIMITIVE Brandon Isaak (independent) *****
I find that, with some albums, you have to work to get inside before you can appreciate what’s going on- but that’s not the case with Brandon Isaak’s new disc. Modern Primitive, with its gentle and unassuming bluesy swing, got me right out of the gate. This is an utterly charming and completely captivating set of songs.
Brandon Isaak was born in Whitehorse and comes from a musical family. His folks owned a couple of blues clubs and his father, Ed Isaak, has been a full time musician his whole life. This kind of music comes naturally to Brandon, and you can really feel it in the grooves of Modern Primitive. Though not your traditional live album with drunken crowds, it was recorded live at the historic Hotel Georgia in Vancouver. The room was known to have been used by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley, according to the liner notes- talk about holy ghosts! This album flows so naturally- nothing pieced together or forced happening here.
Modern Primitive features Brandon on guitar, harmonica, piano, drums, banjo, lap steel and vocals and his good friend Keith Picot on upright bass and backing vocals, with Conrad Hillis producing. “It was such an honor to record these songs with one of my very best friends and a guy who I admire” he says of Picot. “We had a lot of laughs recording this album and we always wanted to do one away from any other band projects.” As for the producer, Isaak notes that “the addition of Conrad Hillis made the whole think work, and he was a joy to work with.”
I’ve been a bit of a Duke Robillard buff for a number of years now, and the overall feel of Modern Primitive strikes me as having a similar spirit to Duke’s stuff. Upbeat, modern swing numbers like Valentine Blues, Back To New Orleans and I Wanna Swing For Christmas in particular feel sort of Duke-y, while I Wish I Did What I Said is a sparse heartbreaker and Lost Love and Loose Women is a gritty Chicago-style shuffle that opens the album with talk of overcoming hard times and finding a silver lining.
I don’t use the term ‘wonderful’ very much, but I can’t think of a better way to describe these 11 songs. Modern Primitive is fresh vintage soulful blues that captures the spirit of a bygone era, and the liner note essay is excellent reading.
KEY CUTS: Lost Love & Loose Women, Back To New Orleans, I Wish I Did What I Said
THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT Sean Chambers (Quarto Valley Records) *****+++
It’s been awhile since I’ve heard a new Sean Chambers record, then he casually comes along with this hurricane-force punch in the face. That’s What I’m Talking About, his 8th album, is a tribute to his friend and mentor Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s lead guitarist, 10 covers and one original. This disc is volcanic.
Chambers spent more than 4 years backing Sumlin starting in the late 90’s. That’s What I’m Talking About is mainly songs they regularly performed during that time. Thanks to Hubert having been one of the architects of the Chicago blues sound there’s an historic yet timeless feel to this record, and Sean Chambers’ own musical abilities lift the set to an entirely new level. His gruff, well seasoned singing voice puts him in Wolf’s territory, and his blistering guitar work is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Can you imagine seeing Sean and Christone Kingfish Ingram on the same bill?!? I’d probably wet myself!
This disc is also notable for the keyboard work of blues masters Bruce Katz and John Ginty but make no mistake, That’s What I’m Talking About is definitely the Sean Chambers show. It’s his first album for Quarto Valley and I gotta think they’re over the moon excited to have this monster of a release on their label. Connections to Hubert Sumlin and Howlin’ Wolf aside, on a more basic level this is hard blues played with rock & roll muscle, bravado, confidence and swagger- and there are very few things, musically speaking, more exciting than that. It’s like Gary Moore running into Freddie King and saying “Hey, let’s kick this thing up a few notches.”
When you spend a lot of time alone in a small room listening to albums and then telling people about them, you live for those times when a disc comes along, grabs you by the collar and says in a dangerous voice “stop what you’re doing and listen to this, motherf**ker”. Sean Chambers’ That’s What I’m Talking About is one of those times. It may very well be able to bring people back from the dead, it’s that powerful.
KEY CUTS: Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Rockin’ Daddy, Chunky
ETEMENANKI Kate Koenig (independent) ***
This is the sophomore release for the Brooklyn based experimental folk singer/ songwriter. Etemenanki is a sparse and searching piece that is instant good company, but it’s also the sort of album that takes a while to wrap your noodle around.
The album itself was released in January, and the promo guy sent me a link for the 2nd single Young With Ancient Stories in May, but I elected to download the whole album instead of just the song. Between here and there I tried a couple of times to listen, only to say “nope, not ready for this yet.” I have no idea what changed, but I’m open to it now. The single is sung from the point of view of a mythological creature who has existed as every person and at every time. The song is B^fdog’s soul baring confession of spiritual disconnection and isolation. “Out of all the songs on the album, the narration of this one comes the closest to coming from my own voice” Koenig says. Perhaps now you have a rough idea of why I needed to circle this one a few times before finally slipping in.
Etemenanki features some tasty finger style acoustic guitar, some cuts just voice and guitar where you can hear Kate’s fingers sliding on the strings while others are lightly augmented by instruments such as percussion and cello. I’m responding to the themes of spirituality, infatuation, questioning and longing, subjects that are beginning to come into focus for me as the last quarter of my own life unfolds. “Many songs on the album blur the lines between romantic obsession and a longing for spiritual connection with the inconceivable” Kate observes. It’s the sort of stuff that constantly hums in the background of my subconscious as I contemplate continuing my own journey and ask “why bother?”
Etemenanki is admittedly an acquired taste sonically, especially if you’re fond of thick, bass-heavy modern pop production. The ideas Koenig addresses lyrically across the album require careful consideration, thought and deciphering. Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons is a fan and hears a lineage between Kate’s music and that of Joni Mitchell, Jeffery Lewis, Laura Marling and The Wowz, if that helps you decide whether or not to try this record on for size.
Etemenanki is not for everyone and was never intended to be… but if you’re ready to take a deep dive into things that matter, I recommend it. You’ll either love it or hate it, there is no middle ground here; and I think Ms. Koenig is okay with that.
KEY CUTS: Young With Ancient Stories, The First Lullaby, Torn And Flayed