Mattias Malm – Malm on Burnside
10 songs – 35 minutes
R.L Burnside was a master of the North Mississippi hill country style of blues, forsaking the more common I-IV-V bar chord progressions in favour single-chord blues. Played badly, as anyone who has had the misfortune to witness “Smokestack Lightnin'” being mangled by a multitude of bar bands will know, a one-chord song can be an exercise in gritted teeth and tedium. Played well, however, there is a pulsating, dronal quality to the rhythm that is atavistic, sexual and wholly irresistible.
Malm on Burnside is the debut solo album from Swedish blues guitarist, Mattias Malm and is a delightful tribute to and celebration of the genius of R.L. Burnside. Recorded live with just Malm’s guitar, vocals and foot stomps, the album comprises some classic Burnside songs such as “Jumper On The Line” and “Going Down South” alongside various covers, such as John Lee Hooker’s “When My First Wife Left Me”, Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues” and the traditional “Someday Baby” and “Long Haired Doney”, all but one closely associated with and regularly played by Burnside himself.
All the songs are played as one-chord grooves except for Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have To Go” and the focus is very much on entrancing rhythms and subtle dynamics with slashing slide guitar or finger-picked melodies. Like Burnside himself, Malm swaps happily between acoustic and electric guitars, helping add variety and texture to the album.
The album was recorded live in Fabriken Studios in Malmo, Sweden and was engineered and produced by Thomas Larsen, who has done a fine job in capturing some excellent performances.
Opening with “Fireman Ring The Bell”, the main riff of which remains as closely related as ever to “Rollin’ And Tumblin'”, it is immediately apparent that Malm is the real deal. His guitar playing (or, on this track, his Lowebow cigar box guitar playing) may be a little more precise than Burnside’s, but it has the same fire and grit, dialling in a ferociously distorted tone on some of the electric numbers.
It’s probably fair to say that Malm’s vocals are not quite on a par with Burnside’s primeval articulations (but then again, whose are?), but his weathered tones fit the music perfectly.
“Going Down South” has a coldly threatening undertone, with the guitar echoing Malm’s hums and moans, while “Jumper On The Line” has a hypnotic, toe-tapping, hip-thrusting allure. The guitar on “Long Haired Doney” is brutal, while “Miss Maybelle” is played acoustically and is accordingly lighter in tone.
Malm approaches the cover tracks in Burnside’s inimitable fashion, often following Burnside’s own arrangements. This reviewer is not aware of Burnside recording “You Don’t Have To Go” and Malm’s finger-picked acoustic version has perhaps more swing than Burnside would apply, but is nonetheless a fine interpretation.
Malm On Burnside, which is available on all digital platforms, is not an anodyne facsimile of Burnside’s music. It may be a pastiche, but it is also a superb celebration of the music of an all-time master, played with deep emotional commitment. Very impressive and very enjoyable.