Saturday, May 15, 2021

Come On In (1998)

OK, this is a pretty strange one but it has its points. Mississippi native R.L. Burnside, a student (and neighbor) of Mississippi Fred McDowell, had some success as a bluesman earlier in his life but did not really come into his own until he was in his 70s in the 1990s. Though his roots were genuine his playing was primitive. He was treated a bit like a freak show during this heyday, signed by Fat Possum (something of a freak show label itself) and ultimately catching the eye of well-known freak show Jon Spencer in the mid-'90s, who liked the cut of Burnside's jib. Burnside toured with Spencer's Blues Explosion band (generally more loud than bluesy but somehow enthralling) and they recorded an album too, the controversial 1996 set A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which asks the musical questions, is it blues or is it a joke? Are you a traditionalist or an anti-traditionalist? And what is the social purpose of the blues? Burnside's solo career from there continued in much the same vein, staying with Fat Possum until his death in 2005. Come On In is basically the first of many so-called remix albums as his health declined, a kind of formal statement of the strange mix of blues work and studio wonkery that became his legacy. Much of the wonkery was Fat Possum honcho Tom Rothrock, acting as producer himself in the studio as well as farming some of it out to folks like Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot. The result has an effect like steampunk. Burnside's deep blues sensibility and instincts evoke a century of music which is then fragmented and stuffed into electronica beats, repetitions, and assaults. The contributing artists, including Burnside, never heard the final results until they were released. It's dirty. It's electronic. It's weird. Come On In opens with a 1:06 snippet of Burnside's "Been Mistreated" which operates in the context almost like an overture. The title song has three versions, fully a quarter of the album's 12 tracks. The Sopranos TV show made a couple of these tracks even more iconic, providing a useful context for their strange powers trucking with depravity: "It's Bad You Know" with its rumbling locomotive groove, Burnside's persistent laconic declaration ("it's bad you know"), and that smoky keyboard. And the purely constructed "Shuck Dub" is recognizable as a soothing soundtrack to mayhem. And so it goes here. I'm basically of the school that the experience of the blues should be raw and a little dirty, so for my purposes Burnside (and Rothrock) may have been the last real gasp of the vital 20th-century form.

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