Obviously, the blues is a genre defined by its limitations. Like a sonnet or a villanelle, there are strict guidelines in place that define the artform. There are roughly 25 ‘classic’ blues songs, and artists have been reworking those same forms for a couple of centuries now. If you go to any blues bar in America, you’re going to hear songs built on these same familiar songs, structures, and chord progressions. What makes modern blues interesting then, is when an artist brings something *new* while working within the form.
The new record from Joshua Cook & The Key Of Now, “Delta Spirit,” is labeled in the “blues-psych” vein, but it falls heavily on the bluesier end of that scale, with added elements of rockabilly, country, and roots rock. When it’s most successful, the listener is left with a pleasant hook or a familiar chord progression. When it doesn’t work, the listener is left with a nagging sense of deja vu, saying to themselves “what song does this remind me of?” This is most evident on album track “Stone Cold Rambler”, which is a doppleganger for the country-flavored tune of both “Love Is A Rose” (Neil Young/Linda Ronstadt) and “Chattahoochee” by Alan Jackson.
Cook’s record is much more interesting when he deviates from formulaic and stretches out in new directions, or focuses on what makes him unique as an artist, namely a stellar voice. His throat is capable of a beguiling roar, as well as a surprising upper range. Like similar swamp-inflected artist Lincoln Durham, he’s got powerful pipes that are best when let off the leash a bit. Further, his guitar work manages to stretch out and jam on the familiar blues scales, without falling into the same tonal template one hears in a lot of more “traditional” blues artists. He’s not playing the same clean, bending tones you’re familiar with from Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jeff Healey, instead aiming for a more subtle sonic range that doesn’t hit your over the head with the fact that this is a *blues* record.
It would be great to see Cook stretch himself further. The first two tracks are a good example. Opener “This, That, & The Other” grooves along merrily, with an amusing lyric about a tedious conversation with somebody who is yammering away on a cocaine jag. Second track “Trouble” unfortunately lapses into well worn blues tropes about how “trouble always comes my way.” It’s redeemed by a great middle-eight where Cook gives himself over to some abandon and lets loose both his voice and some welcome distorted guitar. But the first track shines because of its unusual subject matter. The second is far less memorable, as it leans heavily on standard blues topics.
Later in the record, “Make It Good” is a slow-paced ballad with falsetto vocals that sounds much like Prince singing one of the Stray Cats slower doo-wop songs. “Where Y’at?!” adds some horns and a zydeco to the mix, which makes sense given that the song is about New Orleans. The album highlight comes toward the end, with “When I’m Gone.” The blues forms are abandoned entirely here, in favor of a martial beat, an unexpected fife, and a lyrical turn based in the gospel tradition. It’s a standout.
When Cook expands his blues palette to include rockabilly, primitive garage, and his gospel influences, the songs are at their most rewarding. His voice has impressive range, and he’s clearly not content to be labeled merely a blues artist. This album is a perfectly agreeable listen, within the constraints of the blues framework, but one wonders what he could do if he stepped outside those bounds completely.
By Steve Courtney