CANNED HEAT: BOOGIE WITH CANNED HEAT (1968)
1) Evil Woman; 2) My Crime; 3) On The Road Again; 4) World In A Jug; 5) Turpentine Moan; 6) Whiskey Headed Woman No. 2; 7) Amphetamine Annie; 8) An Owl Song; 9) Marie Laveau; 10) Fried Hockey Boogie.
Unlike Ten Years After or Fleetwood Mac, or even their American predecessors, the Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat were unable — or unwilling — to properly cross the line from imitation to originality. But at least they got tougher, and, second time around, the music has enough power, menace, and mystique to hold the listener's attention. Songwriting is pretty much non-existent — just about anything that is not properly credited to somebody else is still based on classic blues patterns. Thus, ʽMy Crimeʼ is really ʽHoochie Coochie Manʼ; ʽAmphetamine Annieʼ is ʽThe Hunterʼ; and ʽTurpentine Moanʼ is something by Elmore James that is not quite ʽDust My Broomʼ, but close. These things do not bother the big boys one bit, as they diligently supply their own lyrics, and by doing that, loyally imitate the behaviour of their own Afro-American idols, so to hell with anachronistic copyright prejudices.
The good news: the sound gets real fat. Thick, distorted basslines, gritty distorted guitars, and an uneasy premonition in the air — this is the coalesced Canned Heat, and they're ready to do it right this time. Actually, they are so smart now they don't even need to get all that heavy to generate uneasy premonition — cue the band's first big hit, ʽOn The Road Againʼ, where they take the standard John Lee Hooker ʽBoogie Chillenʼ line and use it as the foundation for a truly hypnotic groove — there's something about that combination of monotonous bass, trebly E/G/A guitar riff, soft, «lulling» harmonica, Wilson's trembling, childish falsetto, and buzzing tambura in the background for extra psychedelic effect. Each single ingredient is simple as heck, but together they create a truly sinister sonic mix, as if old man Hooker were caught up in a real bad trip.
That said, normally the band goes for a heavier sound, and if you really want to catch them at the peak of their game, head straight for the last two tracks — the instrumental 12-bar blues ʽMarie Laveauʼ, five minutes of grinning distorted soloing from Vestine with Dr. John lending a major hand on the piano and throwing on some New Orleanian brass for support; and then the lengthy jam ʽFried Hockey Boogieʼ, which gives you even more of the ʽBoogie Chillenʼ riff, this time under a real heavy sauce, and then goes on to showcase the individual talents of the players with funny introductions from The Bear. Nothing too special, no, but there's something untangibly tasteful about the way they kick your ass all over the place with this stuff.
Surprisingly, I find myself enamored with the band's lengthy jams more than I find myself appreciating their shorter songs. With the exception of the haunting trance of ʽOn The Road Againʼ, and the acceptable humor of ʽAmphetamine Annieʼ ("this is a song with a MESSAGE!", The Bear announces at the beginning, and yes, the message is that "SPEED KILLS!", says lead singer in a band where two principal members would die from overdosing, including himself), every other non-jam tune is just okay: Larry Weiss' ʽEvil Womanʼ, for instance, would be very soon available in a ripping monster version from Spooky Tooth that would completely obliterate the Canned Heat cover, and then there's a bunch of other blues-rock tunes that come around, sound nice, and go away without regrets.
But the jams — oh boy, the jams, and it's all about the combinations: Vestine's sizzling guitar tone works delightfully well together with Dr. John's piano on ʽMarie Laveauʼ, and before there ever was ZZ Top, Larry Taylor and Alan Wilson were doing the ʽBoogie Chillen / La Grangeʼ groove with as much passion and verve as any Texan for miles around. They just seem to find that perfect balance between «letting their hair down», not being afraid of feedback, volume, and (occasionally) primal chaos, but at the same time also caring about sheer professionalism and musicality — this makes their jams more rock-'n'-roll-style-exciting than those of their psychedelic contemporaries, but also more intelligent and restrained than the Blue Cheer / Vanilla Fudge / Cactus-style heavy bands. Only thing I can say is that having John Lee Hooker among your top influences really helps with the vibe (and I'm sure Billy Gibbons would agree as well) — oh yes, and even despite its more boring moments, the album still gets an enthusiastic thumbs up.