Markus James – Head For The Hills | Album Review

markusjamescdMarkus James – Head For The Hills

Firenze Records

16 songs – 56 minutes

Head For The Hills is something special. The multi-talented Markus James (he plays guitar, gourd banjo, three-string cigarbox guitar, slide dulcimer, one-string diddley bow, beatbox and harp on the album as well as singing) initially made his name in the mid-1990s while based in Mali, later releasing five critically-acclaimed albums incorporating local influences. His last album featured collaborations with trance groove hunters and a shaman in Mali, as well as Calvin Jackson in Mississippi, travelling Tamasheks in California and African Diaspora musicians in the US.

Over recent years, James has been investigating the relationship and connections between West African music and the Blues. This is an area that has been touched on by other musicians previously, perhaps most successfully by Taj Mahal and his 1999 release, Kulanjan. James’ own investigations led him to the North Mississippi Hill Country and the recording of Head For The Hills, on which he is backed by a veritable “who’s who” of North Mississippi Hill Country drummers, including Kinney Kimbrough (the son of the great Junior), ex-R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough drummer, Calvin Jackson, Aubrey “Bill” turner and R.L. Boyce. Former John Lee Hooker drummer, Marlon Green, also appears on drums and beatbox. There are no other musicians. No bass players, no keyboards, no horns. And the result is a powerful, moving selection of heavy blues.

This album comes roaring out of the speakers with the opening track, “Just Say Yes”. “Can’t put the bullet back into the gun. Can’t undo it, when it’s already done. Hard to stop, once you’ve begun” sings James over Kinney Kimbrough’s vicious, driving drums. Then James’ roaring, wailing slide cigarbox solo cuts through the song like an impassioned scream.

Beautifully recorded, there is a clarity to each instrument and a warm depth to the sound that is impressive. On some tracks, such as the cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Goin’ Down South”, the moving instrumental “For Blind Willie” (on which James creates a remarkable homage to the great Texan slide guitar player) or the closing song, “Green”, there is some background noise of cicadas and the like. Whether over-dubbed or not, the subtley of the effect only adds to the overall ambience of the album.

Highlights abound on Head For The Hills, but one track in particular that stands out is the title track, which is included in two different versions: one acoustic and one electric. On the former, delicate finger picked guitar is underpinned by Calvin Jackson’s gentle hambone percussion. On the latter, Kinney Kimbrough’s irresistibly forceful drumming drives a harder, sharper version. In both versions, James’s striking vocal images stay in the mind long after the song has finished: “Well, it’s hard out there, all the pimps and pills, all the dealers and all their pretty shills. The first one’s free and the last one kills. Time to head for the hills.”

James is a superb guitar player, whether strumming simple chords on “Sleepyhead”, creating a rubbery groove with a diddley bow in “Nomo” or unleasing electric slide like an amped-up Muddy Waters on “Woke Me”. He possesses a distinctive, powerful singing voice and also wrote 15 of the 16 songs on the album. The songs are all blues songs, but James successfully avoids the old 12-bar blues clichés, both in structure and lyrically. His lyrics in particular have one foot in traditional blues and one foot in the modern age. In the curiously affecting love song, “Woke Me”, for example, he sings “Woke up this morning, sky was bleeding red. I tried to remember what you did or said that shook me baby and woke me from the dead.”

There is a raw, almost visceral edge to Head For The Hills and the result is a memorable, highly enjoyable album that bears repeated listening. Great stuff.

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