The Black Keys – Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough

chulahoma

Until I bought this mini LP I’d never come across the name Junior Kimbrough who, according to good old Wikipedia, was an accomplished blues guitarist from Mississippi, and someone whose music only really began to appear in the 1990’s, thanks largely to independent labels such as Fat Possum and Capricorn Records (the former being mainly responsible for popularising the likes of a one Mr R. L. Burnside, amongst others). Now while I’m yet to investigate the recordings of Kimbrough himself, Chulahoma is probably about as good a place to start as any in terms of serving as an introduction to the man’s music (even if it probably bears little if any resemblance to the original recordings). Messrs Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney’s approach to paying tribute to this obscure bluesman is appropriately low-key (no pun intended I promise) and suits their style to a tee. All lo-fi acoustics and electric guitar played through amps that probably date back to the 1950’s – while mixed by some veteran engineer with a hearing problem. But that’s ultimately part of its charm, and something which no doubt would appeal to many a young hirsute hipster, who just can’t get their head around all that digital rubbish masquerading as art nowadays.

The EP opens with the primitive and hypnotic “Keep Your Hands Off Her”, where Auerbach’s vocals and guitar sound delightfully ancient. It’s difficult to make out what he’s actually singing, but that’s OK, because The Black Keys seem more intent on capturing a certain feel and resonance rather than any detail in particular. Likewise “Have Mercy on Me”, which is another short though mesmerising number that just draws the listener in with Auerbach’s distorted notes and Carney’s caveman drumming. Auerbach wails his lines as if he were born in the wrong century, thus adding an additional authenticity to the proceedings.

The passionate yearning continues on “Work Me” and “Meet Me In the City”, especially the latter with its shimmery guitar and pleading vocals. The prehistoric ruminations continue on “Nobody but You” where Auerbach plays in a style not too dissimilar to guitar extraordinaire Gary Clarke Jr., another musician who knows a thing or two about the blues. “My Mind is Ramblin’”, the last track, plods along in faulty microphone fashion, and while the main riff can get a bit repetitive after a while, the performance itself is no less affecting.

I think The Black Keys made the right decision in making Chulahoma an EP, because choosing to release a full length album of this material would likely have tested the patience of even the groups most fanatical of followers. Nonetheless what they managed to produce was a refined and tasteful mark of respect toward an artist whom Auerbach, based on his liner notes, quite clearly held in the highest esteem.

Tagged at the end, interestingly, and strangely, is a brief phone message made by Mildred, Kimbrough’s widow who, after having been played this record (obviously before it had officially been released), declared that Auerbach and Carney were “about the only ones who really, really played like Junior played his records, and I’m very proud, it makes me feel very proud.” Well, I guess endorsements don’t come any better than that.