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Monday, June 3, 2013

Bobby Bland: First Class Blues


1) Two Steps From The Blues; 2) St. James Infirmary; 3) Members Only; 4) Sunday Morning Love; 5) In The Ghetto; 6) Sweet Woman's Love; 7) Angel; 8) I've Just Got To Know; 9) Can We Make Love Tonight?; 10) After All; 11) I Hear You Thinkin'; 12) Straight From The Shoulder; 13) Love Me Or Leave Me; 14) Second Hand Heart; 15) Wal­kin' & Talkin' & Singin' The Blues; 16) Heart, Open Up Again.

Bobby's records of the first half of the 1980s, caught in the short, but sadly prolific period be­tween his nasty fall from artistic grace and the start of the CD era, are fairly hard to come by these days — an Ebay enthusiast would probably have few problems getting his hands on most of them, but why? Hint # 1: Sweet Vibrations (1980), Try Me, I'm Real (1981), and Here We Go Again (1982) each feature a hot young lady on the album sleeve — and only Tell Mr. Bland (1983) features a hot young lady next to Mr. Bland in person. Hint # 2: the first song on Sweet Vibrations actually bears the name of ʽSweet Vibratorʼ, which must be the lowest point in Mr. Bland's career, ever, even if the song were to have a melody of the highest caliber.

Anyway, judging by the few snippets of some of the songs that I did manage to hear, not all of this stuff is utterly awful — in fact, one of the reasons these albums may have disappeared without a trace is that, after the disco embarrassment, Bobby made no effort whatsoever to adapt to the electro-pop standards of the new decade. Just the same old story all over again — perfectly evident on his first CD, First Class Blues, which combined the «best» selections off his previous two albums, Members Only (1985) and After All (1986) with two re-recordings of old classics (ʽTwo Steps From The Bluesʼ and ʽSt. James' Infirmaryʼ).

Quotation marks around «best» are necessary for the simple reason that, at this point, there is really no best or worst, no good or bad, no ups or downs in Bobby's suitcase — slow blues, blues-rock, and balladry are all on the same level of technicality and inspiration. The backing musicians are real enough, but sound like they're mostly in it for the money (the joke is on them, of course, since all the money to be made on Bobby Bland was made at least a decade ago). The drums and keyboards have the predictable electronic sheen; the guitars are professional and modestly taste­ful (no pop-metal influence detected), worthy of a Robert Cray on an effortless day («formally better than shit, but less impressive than shit», that is).

Probably the biggest piece of news is that Bobby's voice has not lost a single frequency in five years — only the grunting / snorting habit has become more irritating, what with the tendency to succumb to it on just about every song that builds up a tense atmosphere. Consequently, those who just love Bobby B. for being Bobby B. will love First Class Blues as usual — as long as Bobby's vocal cords are in order and the arrangements follow traditional patterns, who's to claim that anything here is actually second class?

However, those who are willing to discriminate will probably yawn and cringe at the routineness (not awfulness, but routineness) of the arrangements, and at the fact that pretty much the same emotional load is spread over Vegasy ballads like ʽMembers Onlyʼ, Vegasy blues like ʽSunday Morning Loveʼ, and old-time «socially relevant» songs like ʽIn The Ghettoʼ (personally, I've ne­ver been much of a fan of the Elvis version, but at least it used to convey something special — here, the song does not even begin to stand out against the background). It's all listenable, for sure, but generic mid-1980s blues arrangements are a couple notches below generic mid-1970s blues arrangements (yes, the grass was greener and all that), and in the absence of any compensating factors of «surprise», this is altogether a thumbs down type of album, even if, probably, not the same kind of a thumbs down album as the one that has ʽSweet Vibratorʼ on it.

Check "First Class Blues" (CD) on Amazon
Check "First Class Blues" (MP3) on Amazon

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