Sunday, March 13, 2011

We're Trying Our Best

More than ten years ago, my younger brother expanded my musical horizons significantly through the blues artist R.L. Burnside. The guitarist, who left this mortal coil in 2005, was one of many performers recorded and distributed by the enigmatic Fat Possum Records.

Founded in 1992 by Matthew Johnson and Peter Redvers-Lee, the label's early mission was to discover (and in some cases rediscover) blues players in Mississippi and help them be heard more broadly ... before they up and died. Their business motto: "We're trying our best."

Among the albums they helped create in their early years, including three fantastic compilations (Not the Same Old Blues Crap), Fat Possum won a good deal of attention for the hypnotic, sometimes droning, All Night Long by Junior Kimbrough.

Iggy Pop was reported to be a big Kimbrough fan and counts as one of many artists covering songs on the tribute Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough. (Unfortunately, Pop's two versions of "You Better Run" are among the most forgettable. See The Fiery Furnaces' tripped-out "I'm Leaving" instead.)

In 2002, Jay McInerney published a compelling profile of Fat Possum and its curious oldsters in The New Yorker, titled "White Man at the Door."
Fat Possum artists seem to share a background of sharecropping, illiteracy, poverty, alcohol abuse, and prison time. Burnside is a convicted killer, as is T-Model Ford, the crudest and most exuberant of the Fat Possum lot. T-Model Ford's drummer, Spam, lost several fingertips to a girlfriend with a box cutter. Seventy-four-year-old Cedell Davis, crippled with polio as a child, was crushed and nearly killed in a barroom stampede set off by a police raid.

Paul (Wine) Jones, a part-time welder, is the only Fat Possum artist who's young and fit enough to play an entire set standing up, although he is sometimes not sober enough to do so. Johnson is suspicious of all blues cliches, including the one that says you've got to suffer before you can sing the blues, but he concedes, "My artists have all had hard lives, and that's reflected in the music."
In time, Fat Possum began to sign younger talent with their own approach to the blues (the now wildly popular Black Keys) and indie rock rooted in a blues mindset (Heartless Bastards).

More recently, fantastic low-fi bands like Wavves and Crocodiles have joined the roster--artists with musical aesthetics quite apart from the black fellas listed in the back catalog.

Just this past week, the label announced that Spiritualized had signed. Fronted by J. Spaceman (Jason Pierce), formerly of the Spaceman 3, the band will be working on its seventh album.

Not by accident did they land with Fat Possum: Spiritualized also contributed to Kimbrough's 2005 tribute album and Pierce's music, like Kimbrough's, often bears the descriptor "drone."

All of which is a long way of saying that a) deep-down Matthew Johnson is a My Bloody Valentine fanboy and b) you need to listen to these folks and new acts like Yuck ... Fat Possum continues to deliver the goods.

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