11 tracks; 40 Minutes
Blues duo Son Jack Jr. and Michael Wilde have teamed with multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer Garret Williams to explore the Blues via Electronica on their first disc as the trio Hard Garden. The result is Blue Yonder. The liner notes say “the music on this album has been created to breathe new life into the blues, by attempting to blend the pure, raw essence of original blues with a contemporary groove.” The attempt was made.
Blue Yonder starts with the slinky guitar riff and howling harp of “I Feel Evil.” There’s a dark foreboding voice, but the processed synth tone of the clean guitar strips any menace from the song and leaves the whole thing a little flat. The harmonica is excellent though, and holds your attention. This song is the most traditional on the record.
Hard Garden does seem earnest in their goal of fusing past, present and future but unfortunately the memory of Son House is besmirched mightily on his “Depot Blues.” The song starts off with Son’s famous quote “I’m talkin’ about the blues, now, I ain’t talkin’ about monkey junk,” but the whole thing seems like a caricature. Hard Garden only succeeds in creating the monkey junk Son was rejecting. Son House was talking about the feeling deep inside; the hurt, the pain, the love, and the passion. This reading of the tune is devoid of emotion, passion, fire, and authenticity. The electronic drums are horrible, the scratchy record lead-in is contrived, and the recitation of Son House’s words seems mockingly apish. Even as an old man, Son House sang with passion and his spirit was virile, vigorous, and potent. This is sterile and borders on offensive.
“Pour Me Another” is probably supposed to be funny with its pseudo British accent and inane story about a boastful talking dog. No amount of shrieking harp could save this song, but they tried. It comes off as a horrible adolescent attempt at humor, with engaging harmonica lost in a sea of bad jokes and abysmal uninspiring repetitive beats. “Maximum Insecurity” is another failed attempt at blues humor with its clichés of criminality, judges, and jails. “Showtime!” is just electronica noise. They attempt to channel James Brown on this one, but it takes more than a loop of “Take it to the bridge” to honor the Godfather Of Soul.
Hard Garden does get some things right. The harp playing from Michael Wilde is incredible and guitar solos are very good. They use a lot of reverb for a swampy effect and it works well. “The Valley” has a marching cadence with shimmering arpeggios writhing through the track like the emotional slime trail left by the erstwhile father of the song’s main character. “The Valley” also provides the defining lyric of the set: “It’ll all be better when I’m gone.” “Dangerous” has some intricate guitar work, and the solo has a gritty tone to match the title. “Dangerous” comes very close to achieving their goal and shows the most vitality from this electronic blues mash-up experiment. Unfortunately they had to ruin it with a dreadful, disc-ending remix which serves as a fitting recap of all that’s wrong with last 36 minutes.
I didn’t want to finish listening to the disc, but I did. I listened to it about a dozen times trying to hear what I was missing. I never found it. Disco blues is a bad idea. If they are trying to create a 21st Century version of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough’s trance-inducing hill country blues, they need to re-examine the tools they chose. Get a real drummer and don’t let him anywhere near a computer. Electronic beats, samples and loops are distracting at best. Worse, they are predictable. One of the beautiful things about blues is the humanity; the mistakes. It’s the 13th bar you weren’t expecting, the off key note that feels so right, or the turnaround that stops halfway. Some might argue the group could bring new fans to the blues, but I wouldn’t want new blues fans thinking the music sounds like this.
Blue Yonder’s liner notes offer this: “The blues today is like an old plot of land – once vibrant and fertile but after years of being overlooked has turned into a wasteland or hard garden.” Hard Garden claims to have broken new ground, but I’m hoping whatever they planted dies on the vine. Son Jack Jr. and Michael Wilde are clearly talented musicians and I can hear a classic Hill Country duo underneath the beats, samples and clichés. Instead of shooting for the lowest common denominator, they should aim higher and make honest, ardent music. The Blues doesn’t need a digital, trip-hop makeover to remain relevant and no one needs to bring Blues into the 21st Century. It is all around us.