Reviews

John Lee Hooker
The Complete '50s Chess Recordings
(MCA/Chess)

The blues is food for worms. Dead. Axe-murdered by Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and their ilk, who captured the form in the late '60s and sold the world on a recipe of guitar-first, groove-second, song-last. But the blues was never exclusively about shred-uber-alles; it was about song-and-groove. In the hands of Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, the results were transcendent and true, without the showboating.

Which makes it hard not to feel nostalgic when faced with MCA's reissue of John Lee Hooker's early '50s Chess recordings. Here is the thirtysomething Hooker, whose "Boogie Chillen" was a dance hall hit in 1948, grooving like a train heading across the fertile crescent of American music -- Memphis to New Orleans. Most of the collection's 31 cuts are good original material. They generally eschew the familiar 12-bar/three-chord structure in favor of unique, intoxicating 16/1. Hooker keeps ever-changing time with his feet, stabs simply and fiercely at his guitar, and uncorks a string of songs about gutting the vicissitudes of existence.

When Hooker made these primal and primitively recorded blues for Chess between 1951 and 1954 he was new to the North and, in the context of the urban reinvention of the music going on at the studio at the time, was on the verge of becoming a stylistic anachronism. Indeed, there are several tracks where he tries his hand -- unsuccessfully -- at jump blues and small combos. But when Hooker sticks to the Delta, he has the kind of hypnotic immediacy that must have been acquired in the juke joints of yore -- where you either got people dancing or caught a bottle of Dixie in the forehead.

Still, the non-musicologist will eventually ask: What do the blues have to do with 1998? The answer: not much. Hooker, now in his 80s, has little to do with the blues anymore. He's a figurehead, churning out diluted albums such as The Healer and Mr. Lucky, owning a San Francisco club, wearing star-emblazoned dress socks, and reminiscing in print interviews about what it was like in the day. The blues, at least in its post-Delta emanations, has become a catechism: the kind of cultural material you're not supposed to question. But if the blues wants to jump out of its present grave, and show the kind of power its many boosters claim it has, then it could do infinitely worse than look to Hooker's four-decade-old Chess sides as a fountain of youth.

-- Philip Dawdy

Various Artists
Hell Comes to Your House
(Time Bomb)

The 1981 punk compilation Hell Comes to Your House documents a moment in time when the burgeoning Southern California punk scene -- then awash in a darker style of guttural guitar chords, sporadic theatrical keyboards, and gruff vocals -- began a slow splintering into pure goth, death rock, and surf-influenced punk. The compilation, out of print since 1986 and recently rereleased, is an auditory Polaroid of the last time these three fragments of punk shared common musical ground.

A rough sketch of Social Distortion's trademark melodic, riff-heavy punk emerges from "Lude Boy," the band's earliest and rarest offering. "Telling Them," the group's other song on the comp, presents a grittier, stripped version of Social Distortion still searching for the sound they would perfect on 1982's "1945" 7-inch -- the record that would keep getting made by bands like Bad Religion and Youth Brigade.

The rest of what in earlier times would have been side one continues with "Puss 'n' Boots," from Red Cross. (This was before the band was forced to change its name to Redd Kross.) The track, which was released only on HCTYH, foreshadows the pop punk that Redd Kross would rehash throughout their career. Rounding out side one are two songs each by Secret Hate and the Conservatives. Secret Hate's "Deception" -- a bass-driven tune peppered with guitar notes like shattered glass -- hints at emerging death rock. In odd contrast to that dark mood, the Conservatives play the loose, almost twangy guitars popular with the Adolescents and Agent Orange, other SoCal punks toying with surf tunes.

Side two's opening three tracks -- "Evil," "Concerned Citizen," and "45 Grave" -- could be extracted, packaged separately, and labeled "Fundamentals of Death Rock by 45 Grave." These tracks' fluid metallic sound, rounded out by pulsing keyboards and poisonous lyrics, launched the once-potent career of 45 Grave; but they also arguably spurred the creation of the L.A. death rock scene. The compilation further delves into the darker side of L.A. punk with Christian Death, featuring original singer Rozz Williams and guitarist Rikk Agnew (on loan from D.I. and the Adolescents), who outlined the funereal stylings of American goth proper with "Dogs" (the band's first song ever). Both groups refute purists who say that American goth owes everything to British bands such as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, and Bauhaus. Goth may have begun with those imports, but the unique sound showcased here created a key template for the dark American music that was to come.

-- Robert Arriaga

Sylk 130
When the Funk Hits the Fan
(Ovum/Columbia)

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