Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough
f Junior Kimbrough had never existed, it would have been necessary for music critics to invent him. To the older generation of critics (you could call them the “Neil Pollack” school of rock journalists), Kimbrough probably seemed like a dream come true: an itinerant Mississippi Delta bluesman, a pioneering, hugely influential guitarist and a fascinating personality who spent most of his life labouring in juke joint obscurity. For some critics, there’s nothing better than an unrecognized African-American genius, and Kimbrough surely was. Ultimately, it was one such critic, Robert Palmer, who helped Kimbrough emerge from obscurity in the early nineties, finally bringing his music to a wider audience. That wider audience presumably included most of the artists who would go on to play on Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough.
It’s clear that all these artists love and appreciate Kimbrough’s work, and it’s also apparent that Fat Possum were able to assemble a very impressive group of musicians for this album. Iggy Pop, and, crucially, The Stooges, are probably the most famous, which could explain why they get to do the same song twice, but Chan Marshall, Blues Explosion, The Black Keys, Pete Yorn, The Ponys, The Fiery Furnaces, and Mark Lanegan also appear.
Unfortunately, the bulk of material on Sunday Nights suffers from the simple fact that white people sometimes have a hard time playing the blues. Let me rephrase that: white people usually have a hard time playing the blues, and the many notable exceptions to this rule (from John Mayall to Jack White) deserve nothing but praise. But for every white rocker who succeeds, many more will fail. Jon Spencer, who was good enough to appear on Sunday Nights so I can bash him once more, is the ultimate white blues hack, a living testament to the fact that being able to play “bluesy” riffs and maybe even “talk black” doesn’t translate into music that anybody would (or, at least, should) ever want to listen to. If he were the only embarrassing thing about Sunday Nights, it could still be a very good album. There are, after all, plenty of good performances here. The Stooges start the album well with their hilariously fucked-up cover of “You Better Run” (in which Kimbrough’s protagonist saves a woman from getting raped, and then threatens to rape her) and both Heartless Bastards and The Ponys manage to get their shine on, too. Surprisingly, the Black Keys contribution, “My Mind Is Ramblin’” is disappointing. This is too bad, as they could have taught a lot of these bands (including the vaunted Fiery Furnaces) a thing or two about adhering to the blues tradition without being obsessively traditional.
But overall, Sunday Nights vacillates between bland retreads (Yorn, Lanegan, Jim White, Jack Oblivian), more experimental interpretations that don’t work (Fiery Furnaces, Spiritualized) and the truly terrible crap, represented most ably by Blues Explosion. The few songs that escape this pattern are great, however, and for the uninitiated, the good covers, and even the bland ones, should establish Kimbrough’s brilliance as a songwriter.
On the back of the CD, Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum recommends Fat Possum’s Kimbrough compilation You Better Run: the Essential Junior Kimbrough. Perhaps that’s the real plan here: tantalize new listeners with an extremely flawed tribute album, and then offer them the original material, conveniently packaged on a single disc. It’s a risky strategy, but if it works, more power to Fat Possum. Consider this your back of the CD: skip Sunday Nights entirely and go straight to the source.
Reviewed by: Ryan Hardy
Reviewed on: 2005-02-09