By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
You Better Keep Still
Filtering the blues through white middle-class teen angst has been a time-honored and artistically fruitful rock 'n' roll strategy that goes back as far as the Stones and the Yardbirds. The approach of Fat Possum, an Oxford, Miss.-based blues label is to reverse the process. Its music is made by elderly black men, distributed by the punk label Epitaph, and sold almost exclusively to Jon Spencer and Beastie Boys fans. The Fat Possum strategy is to channel a young, white, male take on authentic machismo through the voices of old, black bluesmen in a naked stab at postadolescent validation. The label's implicit claim is that blues is the original punk rock.
Well, guess what: It's not. In the liner notes to T-Model Ford's 1997 Fat Possum debut, Pee-Wee Get My Gun (the cover of which showed a young black child pointing a pistol at the camera), label owner Matt Johnson ridiculed the "romanticized" image of the bluesman as "an old black man devoid of anger and rage, happily strumming an acoustic guitar." In response to that toothless stereotype, Johnson has posited an equally dubious vision of the bluesman as a sexually desperate, inherently violent existential nomad, a depiction that just happens to fit with his target demographic's visions of male power.
And with T-Model Ford, much as with his better-known labelmate R.L. Burnside, the Fat Possum guys have someone who is perfectly content to play the mythically drunk, mentally ill badass. It's a role that Junior Kimbrough--the real king of the North Mississippi blues scene that Fat Possum professes to document--never allowed himself to be hemmed in by. But with the recent deaths of Kimbrough and Robert Palmer, the critic/historian who served as a frequent producer for the label (see Kimbrough's 1994 epic Sad Days, Lonely Nights), any real commitment Fat Possum had to representing an underrecognized blues subgenre may be gone for good.
In their absence, the label is likely to produce records like Ford's new You Better Keep Still, where he and his drummer, Spam, make music that can't touch the grandeur of Kimbrough or the genuinely punkish drive of Burnside. Ford sings off-key, plays sloppily, and lets irony-bred fans sop up self-parodying junk like "If I Had Wings (Part 1)" and "These Eyes," before thrilling to the now standard Blues Explosion-style remix. The album-opening "If I Had Wings (Part 1)" is a meandering, pseudo-poetic tall tale in which Spam keeps the most inconsistent beat since your 3-year-old nephew got drums for Christmas, while Ford tries (very unsuccessfully) to yodel. "These Eyes" is even worse, as Ford does his best Clarence "Frog Man" Henry impression: He attempts to sing like a girl, only to end up sounding more like a frog.
About the only respite from Fat Possum's punk-blooze high jinks is "The Old Number," a solid, straight version of the blues standard "Catfish Blues," where Ford's patrons mercifully keep both their mentality and gadgetry out of the music. Other than that, the whole project is a sad, tired dud, brought to you with the same condescending sensibility that made black, schizophrenic street-person-turned-crooner Wesley Willis an indie-rock darling.