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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Alex Harvey: The Blues


ALEX HARVEY: THE BLUES (1964)

1) Trouble In Mind; 2) Honey Bee; 3) I Learned About Women; 4) Danger Zone; 5) The Riddle Song; 6) Waltzing Matilda; 7) TB Blues; 8) The Big Rock Candy Mountain; 9) The Michigan Massacre; 10) No Peace; 11) Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out; 12) St. James Infirmary; 13) Strange Fruit; 14) Kisses Sweeter Than Wine; 15) Good God Almighty.

The Blues, an absolute discographic rarity these days, was recorded at the tail end of Alex Harvey & His Soul Band's career — in fact, by the time it was recorded the "band" consisted of just about Alex himself and his brother Leslie (later of Stone The Crows fame, still later of the "first noted guitarist to have himself electrocuted on stage" fame). Information on the circumstances and participants of this recording is very limited, of course, but since the only instruments on it are an acoustic guitar (presumably played by Alex) and an electric guitar (presumably played by Leslie), I imagine that's about all the information we're ever gonna get.

Do not worry about the record being practically unavailable — it is so for a good reason, because The Blues is simply not a very good album. It is fairly unique for its times, though. Back when everyone else in Britain was busy jumping on the R'n'B wagon, and the only blues style that got attention and respect was Chicago electric stuff, Alex Harvey was willing to dig deeper and go further than that. No 'Little Red Rooster' or 'Rollin' Stone' will be found here; he covers some really old and (at that time at least) obscure tunes that come from the pre-war era — although I have a weird feeling that his sources were mostly white players, old folk, country-blues and bluegrass stuff (e. g. Woody Guthrie or Jimmy Rogers, whose 'TB Blues' is covered), because I only recognize 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out' and, of course, 'Strange Fruit' as songs made popular by black performers. Certainly 'Waltzing Matilda' and 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain' have little to do with the blues as such — but they're pretty old tunes all the same, and some people do have this manner of calling everything released before the Fifties as 'blues' unless it's Bing Crosby.

Stylistically and manner-wise, The Blues is a bit similar to the atittude of the Holy Modal Roun­ders on the other side of the ocean: very irreverent, rather paranoid, relatively unpredictable. But not as funny or inventive. And quite likely to induce headaches, because Harvey, in his overri­ding desire to sound off-the-cuff and different, overscreams. A few tunes are pleasantly quiet and modest, but much, if not most of the time, they turn into screamfests where any hope of subtlety is lost. Take the same 'TB Blues', for instance: Rogers' original, sung in his usual sweet, lulling voice, worked so well exactly because of the gruesome dis-coherence between the death-wrapped lyrics and the sugary, nonchalant voice, but Harvey's take on it doesn't even sound authentic when he imitates an agonizing man's paranoia — it sounds drastically overplayed, not funny, not terrifying, just annoying.

Annoying is the word, which I have some time ago sworn not to abuse, but there's hardly a better chance to use it in all sincerity than in this review. Most of these songs are annoying. 'Trouble In Mind' — annoying. 'Danger Zone' — annoying. 'No Peace' — annoying. 'St. James Infirmary' — very annoying. Thank God at least 'Strange Fruit' isn't annoying, but even so it's only notable for historic reasons, because I cannot imagine any sort of spiritual or material need for anyone to listen to a 'Strange Fruit' that is not done by a Billie Holiday or, at least, a Nina Simone.

In short, it's not hard to understand why Harvey had no hopes of making it big at the time, or why this stage of his career has not gotten a better treatment in retrospect. For 1964, this was way too weird, for any decade later than that, this is way too boring and annoying. And although, from a purely brainy-intellectual point of view, I am sometimes tempted to thumbs-up the record, my heart always overrides this decision with a no-go thumbs down all the way.

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