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Meeting in the Middle

Mid-South artists draw on Nashville and Louisiana for new releases.

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Down in Louisiana

Bobby Rush

(Deep Rush Records/Thirty Tigers)

Arguably the reigning king of the so-called Chitlin' circuit, Bobby Rush has been playing around with his contemporary soul/blues sound — "folk-funk," he calls it — more in recent years, most notably on 2007's solo, acoustic Raw. Recorded at Ocean Soul Studios in Nashville with keyboardist/producer Paul Brown and mastered in Memphis by Kevin Nix, then released earlier this year, Down in Louisiana is another departure for the 72-year-old Mississippi institution.

"Way down in Louisiana/Down in Cajun land/Folks got something going on down there/That you might not understand," Rush sings to open the lead/title song and then give his own blues-drenched tour of his birth state. While not as unadorned as Raw, this is still a relatively stripped-down work for Rush: guitar-bass-drum-organ with a little bit of harmonica and accordion at times; no horns.

Title song aside, the lyrical content here isn't unusual. Rush wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 songs, and the record showcases both his signatures and his versatility. There are Rush-ian double-entendres ("You just like a dresser/Somebody always in your drawers") and dirty jokes ("Bowlegged Woman"). He growls his way through an insolent post-cheating reaction on "I Ain't the One" ("I ain't the one to trust your explanation/The cologne I smell there ain't the kind I wear") and offers lilting, classic-soul reassurance on the charming if perhaps overlong "Don't You Cry."

Rush sounds equally comfortable on the blues-bar ready "Boogie in the Dark," which plays off the standard "Sweet Home Chicago" riff and refrain, as he does on the meaner, juke-joint-oriented "Raining in My Heart." The instrumental party-blues vamp "Rock This House" is as convincing as the gospel-blues closer "Swing Low." And he confronts what the good times keep at bay — concerns over "Tight Money" ("The cost of living y'all is going sky high/Cost too much to live and it cost too much to die") and personal pain ("What Is the Blues").

Musically, the Louisiana theme comes and goes. Some songs would sound at home on any Rush recording, but it's swampy at times and deploys a relaxed Crescent City groove at others. Rush has been releasing worthy albums to a niche audience for decades now, often even under the radar of modern-blues specialists. But even more than most, Down in Louisiana is an album worthy of consideration beyond Rush's core fan base.

Grade: B+

Bobby Rush plays the "Live on the Levee" concert series in Helena, Arkansas, on Saturday, June 8th, with Tyrannosaurus Chicken. Music starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30. See kingbiscuitfestival.com for more info.

Desperation

The Oblivians

(In the Red)

With the Oblivians' '90s heyday roughly coinciding with my far-from-Memphis college years, I had the misfortune of only seeing the band live once during their initial run, near the end, soon after the release of the band's great apparent swan song, 1997's ... Play Nine Songs with Mr. Quintron. But I've seen most of the band's local "reunion" gigs in recent years and none were better than this spring on the final night of the Poplar Avenue Hi-Tone Café, a no-frills performance heavy on then-unreleased new material that suggested a return to active status — with a new record on the horizon and plenty of recording and practices under their belt — had energized them.

For a week after that night I walked around humming and singing "Call the Police," a song I'd heard for the one and only time that night and that felt like an instant classic.

"You better call your wife/Call your bossman/Cause we ain't never goin' home," Cartwright sang that night. "Call the police/Call the police/Cause we're gonna get our drink on," he yelped as a sold-out crowd said goodbye to a beloved club and welcome back to a classic Memphis band.

The song, it turns out, is a cover. And not the usual ancient rock/soul chestnut or punk obscurity you might expect the band to unearth. It's a zydeco line-dance song and relatively recent regional single from an artist named Stephanie Sanders (released under the name "Stephanie McDee"), who has apparently since gone gospel and disowned the song. The Oblivians rev it up and make it their own. What seemed classic on first live contact sounds just as much so on Desperation, the band's first studio album in 16 years, which was recorded at Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Studio in Nashville and released on June 4th.

But "Call the Police" isn't the only new Oblivians classic on the album. The band rivals it from the very outset with Cartwright's "I'll Be Gone," which, as he told the Flyer's Chris Davis in last week's cover profile on the band, was partly inspired by the 2010 death of 29-year-old one-time band protégé Jay Reatard. "Let's rock-and-roll as we get old/We will before too long," the band sings on what amounts to an urgent, honest manifesto that sets the tone for the rest of this terrific and rewardingly purposeful reunion.

Cartwright and bandmates Jack Yarber and Eric Friedl have all produced as much good work — on and off record — since the band's initial breakup as they had before. Probably more. And Desperation is true to how each member's persona and style has evolved while also honoring the band's particular gestalt. Friedl ("Woke Up in a Police Car") is the punk conscience. Yarber ("Run for Cover") is the truest rock-and-roller. Cartwright ("Pinball King") the classic pop savant.

Grade: A-

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