Corey Harris,
Downhome Sophisticate
(Rounder, 2002)

Depending on your point of view, you're likely to look at Corey Harris's daring new CD as either a stunning landmark in the progression of blues music or a real mess of an album, neither fish nor fowl. I tend to gravitate toward the first opinion.

Even the title reveals the dichotomy in Harris's approach this time around. This isn't just a generic "downhome" blues album, far from it, although it pays tribute to many aspects of African-American music. The first song, "Frankie Doris," is heavy with funk and organ played by jazz keyboardist Henry Butler, while "Money on My Mind" smacks of vintage Hendrix by way of Fred McDowell. "Don't Let the Devil Ride" is traditional 12-bar, but soaked with a very contemporary sound, and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" puts a searing and angry patina on the old, seemingly inoffensive lyrics.

"Capitaine" provides an abrupt change of pace in the form of an idyllic acoustic instrumental, out of which we're thrust into "Santoro," an eerie nightmare of violent premonition, followed by perhaps the bravest cut on the album, "Fire," with the provocative lyrics, "did you see the fire?/smoke rising -- higher/did you hear the thunder?/did you wonder?/babylon a crumble/her towers, they did tumble/now her guns a rumble/everywhere -- rumors of war" Harris's voice takes on the screams of a Jeremiah, trying to make sense of a post-9/11 world.

After a brief silence, we seem to go back to an easier time with the smooth instrumental, "BB," a traditional rocker. It segues into the title track, which has aspects of field hollers, James Brown and hip-hop all wrapped up into one fun, yet vaguely menacing, track. "Sista Rose" gets into an infectious Latin groove, which continues into the evocative "Black Maria," with the powerful lyrics, "momma africa where the white meets the blue nile/black maria first in line/mother true divine/indigo, mahogany, mother of humanity/mother mary can't replace you,/a million armies can't erase you." An echoing instrumental, "Chinook," leads into a reggae-styled "Money Eye," and a brief slide guitar piece, "Where the Yellow Cross the Dog." The CD ends with a remix of "Santoro" called "f'shizza," an amalgamation of much that has come before, remixed into something utterly new. As such, it's an ideal way to end this album, a stunning, visceral creation that pays tribute to its roots while looking forward to something new made up of its previous parts.

I suspect this isn't going to be a universally praised album. Some listeners are bound to think that Harris is trying too hard to blend the different aspects of the cultures that have influenced him and his music, but this bold and courageous experiment stands, in its sheer audacity, high above the offerings of hundreds of musical artists who would never even think of attempting such a synthesis of styles and elements. Frankly, I'm far from fully certain as to what Harris is trying to do here, but the very fact that he is trying to achieve what many artists never dream of attempting is enough for me to put him in a very high pantheon of musicians. Wherever he leads us in his next album, I'll follow, and I suggest that anyone who takes music seriously do the same.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 31 August 2002

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