ALBERT COLLINS: ICE PICKIN' (1978)
For technical reasons, in 1973 Albert once again found himself without a record label, but him being «The Ice Man» and all, he took it cool and made good use of the next five years just tightening up his act, writing new tunes, and waiting for Fortune's next big break to come and tap Albert Collins on the shoulder rather than Albert Collins hunting for that big break and wrecking his nervous system. The (un)expected break came in 1977, when he landed a contract with Alligator Records in Chicago and staged his biggest comeback, ever.
Chronologically, this coincided with Muddy Waters' similar «comeback» with Hard Again; but Muddy's refreshening was very much the result of hard work on the part of Johnny Winter and a team of fresh young bluesmen from a new generation of roots-rockers, whereas Ice Pickin', as damn good as the backing musicians are, primarily depends on Albert's own songwriting, singing and, of course, ice-pickin', that is, string-bendin'.
The big difference between this and Albert's Imperial records is — to hell with modesty and humility; this is Collins' own show all the way. When he doesn't play, he sings, when he doesn't sing he plays, and the sax and keyboard players are only there to add background juice. Pretentious, perhaps, but why should anyone sacrifice concrete quality for discrete equality? 'Avalanche' has two and a half minutes of the finest, scorchiest, sharpest boogie soloing you'll hear anywhere, and it's fairly inventive, too, alternating jazz, blues, and rock'n'roll phrasing, all recorded in a clean, shrill, fail-less tone; a rare case of perfect balance between intellectual mastery of the form and pure kickass energy.
This is just one of the highlights. 'Cold, Cold Feeling' drops the restraint as well, becoming one of Collins' most soulful blues ballads. 'Honey, Hush!' is an update of the Stax-Volt thing for the already mentioned new and tighter generation of players, although primary emphasis is still on the adventures of Albert's stuttering guitar. The most memorable track, though, is 'Conversation With Collins', a slow, predictably generic, piece of talking blues on which family man Al plays out an imaginary family drama centered on nightlife adventures of his errant wife (amusingly, his real wife Gwen was a loving partner who actually wrote some of the material for him, including the funny banking satire 'Master Charge'): the little bit towards the end during which he impersonates a scowling husband's reaction with his guitar is priceless, and should belong in all the annals of the art of «emotion transfer».
Maybe it is not a coincidence that this is Albert's first album in many, many years to return to the topics of coldness and ice — things that almost seem to work as some sort of good luck charm for the man. If Ice Pickin' seems less varied and experimental than some of the 1969-72 albums, it is only for the greater good of humanity: Collins's true forté is his ability to make his own Lucille talk like no other Lucille in the world, not genre-hopping. On Ice Pickin', that ability is flashed brighter than ever before: only the early singles can compete, but even the early singles are too constrained by the minimalism. Thumbs up, of course.
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