Since the beginning, blues has been communal music. So the idea of blues superstars always seems a bit antithetical to the whole aesthetic. Like folk music, it’s more about the songs bringing people together than about one singular personality being a spokesperson for the music. And yet, there’s a laundry list of famed bluesmen whose identities seem larger than the songs they played. Robert Johnson, for one. B.B. King is another obvious one. Mississippi Fred Mc Dowell, R.L. Burnside, Leadbelly…the list goes on. But, without a doubt, one of the biggest names ever to be linked to the blues was Junior Kimbrough, and thanks to Fat Possum Records and all parties involved, his songs have a chance to be introduced to an entirely new crowd on Sunday Nights, a tribute record featuring fifteen far-reaching indie rock acts.
In blues circles, Junior Kimbrough’s songs probably wouldn’t sound much different in the hands of another musician. But when you allow them to be interpreted by various other bands, a few generations his junior (no pun intended), the result is somewhat more fascinating. The album is sandwiched by two versions of “You Better Run,” played by the newest incarnation of Iggy and the Stooges. They’re fine enough, though the first version sounds suspiciously like “TV Eye.” And there are several artists whose contributions are a little predictable (Heartless Bastards, The Black Keys). But once you get past the few token blues-rock acts, that’s where things start getting exciting.
The Fiery Furnaces are one act that bring something special to Junior Kimbrough’s music. Though they ultimately stay true to the spirit of the blues, their interpretation of “I’m Leaving” is dark and altogether otherworldly, mixing strange synth beeps and squeals into their stripped-down approach. Spiritualized tears through “Sad Days Lonely Nights” with a merciless fury, eventually climaxing in menacing squalls of noise. Pete Yorn’s take on “I Feel Good Again” easily outdoes many of the lesser tracks on his last record. Entrance and Cat Power trade verses on “Do the Romp,” the results of which are somewhat discordant, as Chan Marshall’s vocals are buried in the background. But “All Night Long,” just like just about anything else, sounds absolutely badass when sung by Mark Lanegan.
Hearing Kimbrough’s music taken on by a variety of musicians such as these puts his music in an entirely new light. I don’t consider myself a blues person, but when it’s done right, blues music can be some of the most intense music you’ll ever hear. Though I hesitate to call this a blues album, it’s an awesome covers comp (yes, I actually said that) and just may compel you to track down the originals. Because, after all, isn’t that the point of a tribute album?
R.L. Burnside – A Ass Pocket of Whiskey
The Black Keys – Rubber Factory
Various Artists – Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.