Review by Thom Jurek
There is a compelling tension on T-Model Ford’s Taledragger, with his rawer-than-gravel blues style that has always staggered between the styles of his native Mississippi Delta and those of Chicago. This doesn’t mean the record is tense, but merely that its cultural lines blur consistently between the above styles as well as those of his sidemen — his backing band of the last few years, GravelRoad, is augmented by guest musicians from Detroit — who all came of age in the post-punk to indie rock eras. Produced by Brian Olive, Matthew Smith, and Arthur Alexander in Glendale, CA, the set was mixed by Jim Diamond in Detroit. Suffice to say, the addition of baritone saxophone, Hammond B-3, and 12-string acoustic guitars to these extremely basic tunes makes for interesting listening. The set opens with “Same Old Train,” a choogling shuffle that is “Mystery Train” with (some) different words. Ford’s delightfully rough, front-charging guitar playing is supported by Stefan Zillioux’s in-the-pocket pulse that bass and drums follow in sync, but Olive’s upright piano is off the beat, following Ford; the entire tune ultimately slurs drunkenly. The lyrics refer to the record’s muse: “a big legged mama” who appears often. On “Someone’s Knocking on My Door” (one of the album’s many death meditations), Ford channels the spirits of his old friend Junior Kimbrough and Howlin’ Wolf in a hypnotic two-chord shuffle. The band psychs it up with Smith playing a sinister, snaky B-3, augmented by jangling single-string guitar lines played between beats; there’s a stinging lead break with enough echo to add a trippy dimension. The tension on this set reveals itself best in the readings of “How Many More Years” and “I Worn My Body for So Long.” The former is swampy and disorienting, full of wah-wah guitars, stuttering drums, and a heavy echo on Ford’s voice. He sings with an amused acceptance of the inevitable, not dread — though the accompaniment does its best to evoke it. This is true in the latter as well, with shimmering acoustic slide and fuzzed-out bass work by Smith. “Big Legged Woman” is an all-out party rave-up with everything becoming an orgy of sound more befitting a Detroit barroom than a Delta juke joint — and does it ever work! What Ford, Olive, Smith, Alexander, and the rest have wrought on Taledragger is a modern blues album with primitive roots. The tension works. It’s a far more interesting recording because of its “impurities” — paradoxically, making it a far more “authentic” blues record because it is linked to multiple historic traditions simultaneously. It’s exponentially more enjoyable and exciting as blues than anything coming out of Chicago in the 21st century.