Friday, June 26, 2009

499. Born under a bad sign- Authentic but truncated blues.

Album: Born under a bad sign.
Artist: Albert King.
Year: 1967.
Genre: Big Band electric Blues
1. Born Under A Bad Sign
2. Crosscut Saw
3. Kansas City
4. Oh, Pretty Woman
5. Down Don't Bother Me
6. The Hunter
7. I Almost Lost My Mind
8. Personal Manager
9. Laundromat Blues
10. As The Years Go Passing By
11. The Very Thought Of You

Album 499 takes us sixteen years back in time from Touch and is a completely different concept musically. While number 500 gave us a talented vocalist with an impressive range backed by a collection of soulless noises, Born under a Bad Sign features a vocalist who would make nobody’s top ten list backed by some very talented musicians playing real instruments.

Even if, like me, you’ve never heard this album before you’re probably familiar with a lot of the songs. The title track has been covered by almost everyone who fancies themselves a blues guitarist and other cuts on the album have seen renditions by Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore amongst a host of others. You would also be familiar with most of the musicians backing King throughout the album. Even if you’ve never heard of Booker T, Donald Dunn, Steve Cropper and Issac Hayes you’d know them as “the guys who play well but act badly in The Blues Brothers” and “the chef from Southpark”.

I have to be honest, King sounds pretty bored during the vocals on a lot of these songs. He has a limited range and it seems even less limited interest when it comes to his vocal arrangements. But his vocal chords aren’t what scored King a record contract, it’s his trademark blues guitar playing which carries as much emotion as any singer I’ve heard lately. He really wails on that six string. Covering the full range of blues emotions from “My woman’s cheating on me so I’m gonna leave her” right through to “My woman’s left me but she was cheating on me anyway”.

Actually that’s a bit unfair, there is a bigger lyrical range to Born Under a Bad Sign than just a lot of moaning about unfaithful women. Like all good blues albums there’s some great metaphorical smut. It’s a fair bet that if a blues musician is singing lines that don’t make any literal sense he’s being filthy and he’s just disguising it well. When King tells us in The Hunter that he’s armed with “a love gun” he’s not talking about any weapon you could commit armed robbery with. More baffling howerver is Crosscut saw: “I'm a crosscut saw, Baby, drag me across your log. I'm a crosscut saw, Baby, drag me across your log. I cut your wood so easy for you, You can't help but say, "Hot Dog!" ...Sorry I may be missing something but I need a bit of clarification here. A woman has a log? I thought men had wood not women? I’m baffled. Someone needs to write a book called “Lemon Juice- Sex allusions in blues songs explained,” It would certainly make for interesting reading.

The most frustrating thing about Born under a bad sign is the track length. Most of the songs fade out before the three minute mark even though the band was really cooking. Apparently all these tracks were designed to get airplay so they can’t push over the 3 minute radio-listener attention span. One track even fades out a few seconds after King shouts “Watch me now” and sets off for what is clearly an epic lead break. We’d love to watch you Al but sadly we can’t, partly because records are primarily an auditory experience but also because you’ve faded away into another track.

So does it deserve to be in the top 500? Well there’s no doubt Albert King does. He’s the real deal, the authentic blues experience. He doesn’t need his birth certificate and astrology records to prove he was born under a bad sign, just give him a guitar and he’ll provide you with solid proof. But the album tries to squeeze his blues into a three minute pop track, which doesn’t always work. Listening to Born Under a Bad sign made me think “I bet this guy can really cook in a live setting” and I was correct, he can. I hunted down some of his live work which I really enjoyed. Still this is fantastic stuff and makes for a great listen. Highly recommended.

Highlight: The title track and I almost lost my mind. whoever thought to contrast King’s vocals with a flute was clearly inspired.
Lowlight: The disappointment whenever a track fades out.
Influenced by: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Squinting Willie Turnbuckle, Legless Jim McFloozy, Stuttering Davey Gallbladder, Flatulent Billy Tootingbum and other people with physical impairments of some kind in their names.
Influenced: Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Vaughan, Peter Green- all those lads.
Favourite Amazon Customer review quote: “Take it from one born on a 13th (albeit not a Friday) and under a half moon on the decline…”
-Wow. Do all true blues fans know what the moon was doing on the day they were born?

So is Albert the King or is the whole album born under a bad sign? Let me know below.

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