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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Albert Collins: The Cool Sound Of Albert Collins


1) Frosty; 2) Hot 'n' Cold; 3) Frost Bite; 4) Tremble; 5) Thaw Out; 6) Dyin' Flu; 7) Don't Lose Your Cool; 8) Back­stroke; 9) Cool Aide; 10) Shiver And Shake; 11) Icy Blue; 12) Snow Cone Pt. 1; 13) Snow Cone Pt. 2; 14*) Defrost; 15*) I Don't Know; 16*) Cookin' Catfish; 17*) Takin' My Time; 18*) Freeze; 19*) Soul Road; 20*) Homesick; 21*) Sippin' Soda; 22*) Albert's Alley; 23*) Collins' Shuffle.

It is fairly well possible to like electric blues without even having heard of Albert Collins — the man had, more or less, formed a clique within himself. During his lifetime, he could occasionally be found guest-starring at an Eric Clapton performance or duetting with B. B. King, but his records were nearly always released through minor labels, and he hadn't had much commercial success ever since his first, most profitable, batch of singles established him as a presence back in the late Fifties. And yet, no serious history of electric blues can do without Albert Collins.

It took this gritty guy from Texas a long, long time to firmly settle down in the studio. His first band was assembled in 1952, but he didn't get a contract until 1958, first with Kangaroo Records and then with Hall-Way — labels that no one outside of Texas probably knows these days. The first singles, like 'Freeze', sold reasonably well, but either they didn't sell well enough for a major label to take proper interest in yet another blues axeman, or the axeman himself wasn't interested in getting any attention from the biggies. So, unlike B. B. King, whose LPs, baked at astonishing speed and almost completely undistinguishable from each other, rained on the market all through the 1960s, Collins did not have an actual LP release until 1968.

He did cut singles at a regular rate, though, and fortunately for all of us, many of these were col­lected and released as The Cool Sound Of Albert Collins in 1965, then re-released as Truckin' With Albert Collins in 1969. The twelve songs included on that album were far from a compre­hensive overview of the man's formative years, though, and it is advisable to seek out an extended version of the album with 23 tracks, on an obscure (bootleg-running?) label called Blue City Re­cords — granted, the bonus tracks on my copy sound transferred from crackly vinyl, but the sound quality on the songs them­selves is clear and enjoyable.

So what's the deal with the «cool» guy Albert Collins? Let's start off with a provocative hyper­bole: Albert Collins single-handedly invented the heavy blues-rock of the 1960s before the 1960s even began, and without Albert Collins, there would never have been a Jimi Hendrix, a Cream, or a Led Zeppelin. Getting fairly interesting there, isn't it?

One of the man's nicknames was «The Razor Blade» — a brilliant metaphor, since this is exactly what his sound feels like on at least half of these tracks. He himself, however, was much more a fan of «snowy» and «icy» metaphors — just cast a brief look at the titles of his instrumental per­formances. His ice and snow are, however, not the Gothic-style snow-covered forests with howl­ing winds and prowling wolves attached; rather, they are the crunch and crackle of crystallized substances under the heavy blows of the alpinist's icepick on an energetic, sun-filled day of moun­taineering, if you pardon so much emphasis on metaphors.

Part of Albert's freshness and uniqueness at the time was his use of non-standard tunings, partly responsible for his having a fat, robust tone, contrasting with the generally thin, wimpy sound of most competition. But the major thing about him was that he was not afraid to throw overboard the well-known bag of guitar clichés and, in a way, invent his own guitar language — one that was not afraid of its technical simplicity, betting it all on pure expression. Some of the better gui­tarists of that age, like Otis Rush and Freddie King, were teaching their guitars to feel and to ache; Collins taught his to speak and to act.

Take 'Freeze', his breakthrough: the whole tune is essentially based around a repetitive three-note sequence — Albert does not even bother taking a solo, leaving these embellishing matters to the sax player. But the sound of these three notes is great — steadily going down from a high screa­ming pitch, in a way that no one made their guitar scream in 1958, to a low distorted grumble, the way only Link Wray would allow himself to grumble, and Link Wray played an entirely different style of music anyway. Daringly minimalistic, so much so that the whole thing could have easily been misunderstood as unprofessional, but leaving an impression like nothing else.

Albert's rhythmic basis, contrastingly, is rather generic for its era: yer basic boogies, shuffles, rhumbas, even an uncomfortable attempt at surf-rock on 'Icy Blue' — virtually no mid-tempo or slow 12-bar blues, though, which is quite fitting for his personality: none of that «soul» thing, which quite a few others can, and will, do much better than he can and even more others can, and will, do much worse. The Cool Sound is cool indeed, in that it rocks your world all the way. Vo­cal numbers are at a minimum: 'Dyin' Flu' shows that the man can sing, but also shows that sin­ging is not one of his strong sides. And when he does, almost reluctantly, feel like slowing down for a bit of pure blues, he still makes his guitar whine, choke, sputter, and even go cluck-cluck in­stead of doing it «the regular way» ('Cookin' Catfish'). What a guy.

It may have been almost criminally underappreciated at the time, but the man is really intent on avoiding end­less self-repetition on the solos, putting all his trust into these minimalistic hooks. His brass and keyboard buddies generally handle the improvising duties, professionally, but with­out any major spark, as if the whole thing were a manifesto — down with the solo, long live the well-va­riated riff. Or, sometimes, the riff's awesome interaction with the funky bassline — 'Thaw Out', later appropriated by Hendrix himself and remade as 'Driving South'. This impression alone is enough to guarantee a thumbs up — and then there is all this reverent dedication to one parti­cular semantic field, way before these things started to become naturally regulated by segregating market demands.

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