New Jason Ricci album reinvents blues originality

It’s not often I write a track-by-track review so when I do you know that an album has fully captured my attention. (See my review of the Thornetta Davis album Honest Woman: https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2017/02/16/thornetta-davis-a-new-blues-classic/) Approved by Snakes by Jason Ricci and the Bad Kind is by far the most eclectic and successful blend of genres I’ve ever heard on a blues album.

jason20ricciJust judging by Ricci’s photo on the CD, “the Mooncat” is as much influenced by punk as he is blues, but clearly he’s a magpie for whom no ingredient is off the menu. As Paul Linden writes in the liner notes: “In the box, out the box, kick a hole in the box, if artistic freedom has shit to do with the Big Easy being a global music center, it’s in your hands right now.” I’m just old enough to remember the days of analogue LPs with liner notes the length of a short Rolling Stone article. I loved reading them all and regretted the era when they went out of fashion. If there were an award for most original liner notes, Linden would get my vote: “This record steps out from behind a tattered shade like a hooker hanging her plump thigh over the crowd below. As each succeeding side is thrust out—shamelessly or with passing modesty—the grime in the pavement starts to hiss and sizzle with anticipation.”

The song titles alone cue you to the fact that this is not your typical blues album. It leads off with My True Love is a Dope Whore, chooglin’ down the track with Ricci’s haunting blues harp and an almost breathless spoken word introduction. Ricci signals from track one that his lyrics are more concerned with sociological observation than moaning over lost loves. In my listening experience, few musicians are equally gifted as lyricists and composers, and in blues especially there’s a tendency to dwell on domestic quarrels or disappointments. Modern blues musicians too often forget that the blues originated as a covert form of social protest against slavery. Forget Son House’s famous axiom that “there ain’t but one kinda blues, and that consists of the male and female that’s in love.”  Early blues lyrics were often blistering rants written in clever code so “the Man” would miss it, while anyone on the wrong side of the social divide knew instantly what was being referred to. In other words, the early blues masters were also intuitive masters of that age-old poetic device, the metaphor. These days with the increased freedom of expression in the media, it’s not as necessary to cloak social protest in literary devices. But for the artist devoted to craft, it still doesn’t hurt to write lyrics that work simultaneously on several levels.

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Jason Ricci reinvents the blues on ‘Approved by Snakes.’ Courtesy band website.

And how many blues albums are stocked with numbers that stretch to nearly ten minutes, unless you’re talking a live jam of Got My Mojo Workin’ or Sweet Home Chicago? (There are four such tunes here and several that average close to seven minutes.) Ricci and the Bad Kind are clever enough musicians to make the long workout a many-textured, seamless ride without merely filling up space. Something Just Arrived, in true poetic fashion, has me wondering what exactly the singer is suggesting, and its mid-tempo lurch and grind carries us along nicely. Demon Lover slows it down to an atmospheric crawl, with minimal percussion and chord swells to create a suitably spooky vibe along with Ricci’s almost whispered vocals. Here again Ricci is tapping into a mythic vein that has been explored by writers for millennia—the succubus or night spirit of ancient legend. The guitarist’s swells from nothing to an echoey fullness and then back to nothing again are apt sonic evocations of the elusive night spirit. One of the longest songs on the album, its length allows a painstakingly slow climb to crescendo that holds you mesmerized.

The mood shifts uptempo for My Mom’s Gonna Yell At You, with a vocal line carried by the entire band, creating a sing-songy groove that could become an off-kilter radio hit with the right amount of luck and timing. (Two of the most essential elements in the tripod of success—clearly talent alone isn’t enough.)

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Ricci’s blues harp technique is reminiscent of the late great Paul Butterfield, but ‘the Mooncat’ takes it places even he never imagined. Courtesy T-Bois Blues Festival.

But just in case you were thinking Ricci and the Bad Kind were gearing up for the Parents’ Seal of Approval, next comes Broken Toy/I Fink U Freaky, a hybrid number that merits the “Warning: Explicit Lyrics” label on the CD. “I’m too well for the hospital / I’m too sick for the healthy… Just an outsider and a misfit / not your girl and not your boy… I feel just like a broken toy… I’m too fucked up for this little world / I’m too straight for the faggots / I’m too queer for all the little girls…” Ricci delivers the lines in an agonized tone just short of a wail—the tormented voice of the nonconformist relegated to outsider status and cast to the fringes of society. Late in the song it breaks into a semi-demented bridge, Ricci twisting his harmonica tone even further out of shape than usual and a solo guitar freak-out. The chorus of “I think you’re freaky and I like you a lot,” is a reassuring counterpoint to the singer’s isolation.

The closest the band comes to a jam is on Listen Here, introduced by a funky bass line played by Andy Kurz. By this point in the album you already know these guys know their stuff inside and out, but this is no mere filler. Ricci shifts seamlessly from a Buddy Guy-like vocal sandpapered around the edges into a double-time rap. Ricci uses this tune to demonstrate his blues harp chops—he reminds me of the fluency and tone of the late great Paul Butterfield.

Terrors of Nightlife has the feel of Sticky Fingers-era Stones, a bourbon-soaked voice laid over an acoustic guitar line graced with sweet-as-honey electric slide guitar. It’s not hard to imagine Keith Richards singing this one. Ricci’s harp solo has gorgeous echoes of Sonny Terry. The tune has the sweet, aching melancholy of the Stones’ Coming Down Again from Goat’s Head Soup. The cracking hard light of Ricci’s morning-after-blues is aptly followed by Got Cleaned Up, a jaunty number that—along with I’m Too Strong For You—is probably the closest to a standard blues romp this band gets. Disconnect gives us another golden opportunity to hear the Mooncat’s ripping harp set against an unconventional instrumental backdrop.

This is a highly diversified, deeply textured and thoroughly well-crafted album. I recommend it highly—a 4.5 out of five stars from me. Pre-order Approved by Snakes here: http://www.mooncat.org

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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