The new Fat Possum Records release, Sunday Night – The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, manages to shatter the assumptions that white boys can’t play the blues and that all tribute albums suck. Here, both of those theories delightfully fall flat on their faces.
Tribute albums usually start from a heartfelt expression but end up being poorly executed, mostly because of over-enthusiasm, legal entanglements, or a combination of the two. So, in most cases, you end up with a tentative collection of obscure songs that won’t entice any listener to dig further, performed by a line-up of bands that have enough trouble selling their own records.
Somehow, the Fat Possum team managed to avoid all the classic tribute record pitfalls with Sunday Night….
The late north Mississippi bluesman “Junior” Kimbrough, who died in 1998, isn’t as well known as he should be. He didn’t record his first album until 1992, when Fat Possum signed him. Junior also owned a juke joint, and every Sunday night – well, you get the idea. (The shack on the cover is, in fact, said actual juke joint.)
The blues, real blues music, should beguile you, seduce you, entice you, scare you just a little. It can either make a hole in your heart or fill the one that’s there. It should make you want to dance or just close your eyes and listen. Amazingly, every track on this record will do one or more of those things to you.
With the people who championed Junior Kimbrough at the helm, it’s no wonder that Sunday Night… is a stunning success. The thing that might get your attention is the inclusion of the first two songs, featuring new recordings by the reunited Iggy and the Stooges. And it well should, because those two numbers most of all personify the aforementioned qualities of the blues and then some. However, to focus on those two tracks alone does the rest of the album a terrible disservice.
To get it out of the way, the Stooges perform two very different covers of “You Better Run” that sound like they were recorded 30 years ago, or at least in a world in which the Stooges hadn’t broken up. Iggy invited Junior Kimbrough to open for him on his 1996 tour (Of course, when I saw him on that tour, I got the Demolition Doll Rods instead).
The Stooges were urban bluesmen, so it’s no surprise that Iggy performs “You Better Run” like he owns it. It’s dark, it’s loud, it’s disturbing and it inspires the kind of fear you have driving down a dark country road in an old car and hoping you don’t break down.
Some people might cry nepotism when they look at the track list, with Fat Possum label mates Heartless Bastards, The Black Keys, Thee Shams, and Entrance, but it’s a label with a blues orientation, dammit, and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys taught himself to play guitar by listening to Junior’s records.
Plus, it means that you are forced to listen to the Heartless Bastards, and if you don’t think that Erika Wennerstrom’s voice on “Done Got Old” sounds like a midnight wind screaming through the Mississippi delta, if it doesn’t conjure 3 a.m. with a lonesome train whistle in the distance, you don’t have much of a heart or an imagination.
Thee Shams’ version of “Release Me” sounds like it was recorded at the Crawdaddy Club. And Guy Blakeslee, AKA Entrance, teams up with the great Cat Power for an ethereal rendition of “Do The Romp.” The album would be decidedly poorer without the contribution of these Fat Possum label mates.
It’s not a surprise that the Fiery Furnaces are one of the highlights of the compilation but the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s number isn’t as incendiary as one would anticipate. It’s worth noting that their version of “Meet Me In The City” features the late Elliott Smith on acoustic guitar.
Mark Lanegan’s whiskey-smoked voice competes with Iggy’s in terms of putting the fear into you; he’s never sounded better, and “All Night Long” is one of the record’s true standouts.
Heck, this record makes me like Pete Yorn. Pete Yorn! Or at least relate to the respect presented in his cover of “I Feel Good Again,” one of Kimbrough’s few acoustic numbers.
This is true, even if Yorn’s version is familiar from a record called “Live In New Jersey”. Every time I hear the record and get to this track, I stop and think, “God, this is good, who does this again?”
That’s the surest sign of a tribute album’s success ever. The record suceeds precisely because the songs on Sunday Night – The Songs of Junior Kimbrough are each nothing less than heartfelt interpretations that bring you inside Junior’s Place, make you want to know more, to hear more, and draw you closer to a sound that inspired, well, everyone worth listening to.