Leo Welch's Sabougla Voices is the latest from Big Legal Mess records. It's gospel blues, a virulent strain of Hill Country religious fervor. Welch is a pastor and the host of Black Gospel Express, a Sunday program in Bruce, Mississippi. He's 81. There's a spirit alive in this music all right: the spirit of R.L. and Junior drinking and fishing with the Apostles. Welch's evangelizing has the two-four jump and growl of the best electric country blues.
After 30 years in the church and working on a logging crew, Welch called the label after learning that Junior Kimbrough had recorded for Big Legal Mess. An intern told him they no longer produced blues. A higher-up overheard the conversation and intervened. The result is an album of 10 tracks that could have come from any of the big names in Hill Country blues aside from the exhortations of praise and the ecclesiastical reflections in the lyrics. It's some of the dancingest church music you'll hear outside of a praise break. It would make a fine contribution to any heathen's Sunday morning Bloody Mary and bacon grease situation.
Sabougla Voices, available January 7th
(Big Legal Mess)
Another take on the blues and biblical influence comes from longtime Memphis songwriter Ron Jungklas. The Spirit and the Spine has a more twisted take on religiosity and redemption. The opening track, "Black Snake Moan," paints a picture of a post-religious apocalypse, a tooth-and-claw consideration of human nature. Thundering drums and guitars that sound like dust storms get whipped up into "Automatic," a Dust Bowl tinged lament for rain as a metaphor for meaningful faith.
Jungklas made a run at the big time in the radio days of the 1980s. He's taught science at local schools since the 1990s. But he stayed close enough to the fires to heed the call of music. The Spirit and the Spine finds Jungklas mining despair, alienation, and suffering. "Spit" explores the nature of false prophecy and hypocrisy: "I just gathered up some dust, and I spit into my hand ... I am the crowing cock, sweet honey in the rock/The poison in the bitter pill." All of this happens over the unsettling whirring of a filtered drone menacingly throbbing beneath everything.
The sounds on this record signal thematic changes. Mud and smoke clear for "Say Damn," a bent, electric homecoming: "The loyal opposition in the angel choir." It's a gritty, erotic Prodigal Son thing.
Maybe I'm lost in the twister of imagery and this album is not intended to be a pilgrim's progress through the sex-soaked, anger-spewing, materialistic — yet somehow Christian — culture of the contemporary Bible Belt. But it sure works as one. The Spirit and the Spine is fascinating to listen to, even if it makes you want to put a parental advisory sticker on the Bible.
The Spirit and the Spine
It may be time to work the martini shaker and stare at the moon. If that's the case, Jeremy Shrader and Ed Finney have got you covered. The Moon Is in Love is a collection of originals and jazz standards from the 1930s. Shrader sings and plays trumpet over Finney's jazz guitar. The pairing is spare, but it gives them room to play. And do they ever.
The duo's compositions stand up to some heavy comparisons too. They cover the Gershwins, Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. The standards give the instruments an opportunity to interplay in a way that's engaging. The original songs carry the load based on a couple of virtues:
Shrader's voice bounces along fine on the standards and also keeps up with Finney's compositional workout in "Lovers in Love." "Daytime, Nighttime" is a Shrader original that divines the mood and harmonic textures of the age into a masterfully written song. It's a case study of a golden age in American songcraft.
Shrader's tune "True" veers off the program a bit with a nod to the 1960s. The song incorporates the virtues of '30s songwriting but puts an R&B energy behind it. What Finney does on this great set of chord changes is phenomenal. His guitar tone is so full and powerful and his phrasing so precise and lyrical that it's like watching a rodeo bull dance ballet. You almost can't believe it.
There is a CD release party at the Cove on Thursday, November 21st.
Jeremy Shrader and Ed Finney
The Moon Is in Love