The Curse of K.K. Hammond – Death Roll Blues
11 songs, 43 minutes
In the early 20th Century, before all modern communication, brilliant sensitive regional Blues artists expressed their feelings and the shared experiences of African American communities through song that was, and still is, nuanced, varied and complex. Modern masters of this style of Acoustic Blues understand the difference between the delta brawn of Charley Patton and the flashy smirk of East Coaster Blind Willie McTell; the vast space between esoteric individualists such as Skip James and the more professional genius of Memphis Minnie. And of course everyone can understand the singular brilliance of Robert Johnson’s genre transcending greatness.
There is a growing movement in the UK of artists finding new sparks of creative inspiration from these complex and varied styles of Acoustic Blues. K.K. Hammond has made a pretty commanding statement of purpose for this movement with her debut full length Death Roll Blues. Billed as “The Curse of K.K. Hammond” this resophonic guitar obsessed singer/songwriter creates what she refers to as “Swamp Blues from the darkside,” infusing her mostly Bentonia styled Blues (that’s Skip James’s style of hypnotic minor key dirges) with “Southern Gothic horror.”
The formula for Death Roll Blues is quite simple. Hammond performs all the music: 1 or 2 simply, but masterfully, played, resophonic guitars (popularly referred to as Dobros), Hammond’s bracingly clarion voice at times multi tracked, and occasional claps, stomps and tambourine rattles. The deceptive simplicity requires multiple listens. At first pass the passive listener could be fooled into thinking this mostly mid-tempo program is easily understood as stylized Southern American fetishism.
A second and third listen to Death Roll Blues, preferably at loud volume, begins to unlock its secrets. The lacey interlocked guitar parts have layers of harmony and complexity. The singing is at times tender and vulnerable, at times sneering and brash, and at times horrified and traumatized. The Southern Gothic imagery is used as tools, as cultural markers, for self expression.
K.K. Hammond cleverly expresses complex emotion through, what would be in lesser hands, trite and overused cliché. It’s truly an act of sorcery. On the slow bruising “Anhedonia,” Hammond draws out modern headlines and then breaks into an almost Hawaiian slack key major chorus of “Mama says that I was never happy, Mama says that I’m always blue, but that’s not true…this codeine.” A startling juxtaposition, Hammond is able to make the political personal. This is post COVID, the world is burning, centering and personalizing.
Spooky songs that bring the horror also abound. The title track features fellow British Acoustic Blues devotee David & the Devil’s gravel scarred background vocals. Opening with a brazenly modern descending guitar figure that sounds like a bizzaro music box, the song gives way to a clapping stomping call and response. Again using familiar imagery of gators and cypress trees to fashion a picture of a swampy landscape and the ever looming presence of Death. Then that opening figure comes back as a fragile and quivering chorus damning the listener to a “curse that knows our names.” Chilling in all the good ways.
Death Roll Blues is very British. Being recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios would be enough. But, what Hammond does with the Acoustic Blues, what she does with the clichés and tropes, is also very British. In the best British Invasion traditions of John Mayall, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, or Faces, Hammond filters American culture through her own unique European/British lens. What she then produces is something different; something fresh while also being reverent and vital. Death Roll Blues is the start of something truly great. The Curse of K.K. Hammond is upon us. Watch out!