Recording of January 1996: Puttin' It Down
AudioQuest Music AQ-CD1038 (CD), AQ1038 (LP*). Joe Harley, Terry Evans, Jorge Calderon, prods.; Michael C. Ross, eng. AAD/AAA. TTs: 53:25, 46:03*
The day after we received Puttin 'It Down, RL and I were enthusing over what a superb disc it was—performance, material, and sound quality as well. "I guess we've got our next Recording of the Month," I said.
"I don't know. Blues for Thought [Evans's last album] made RotM. Maybe we should find something else."
"Why should we penalize the man for consistency? Besides, this one's even better!"
And it is. Blues for Thought was a stunning disc: Evans is a blues performer with unusual power and control, and, paired with Ry Cooder—who produced and played guitar—he presented us with a darn near perfect record. Puttin' It Down still features Cooder on guitar, but puts AudioQuest's Joe Harley in the producer's chair, resulting in a recording that's even more personal, with sound quality that's almost scary. Taut, punchy, and full of drive and impact, the disc captures the true sound of an electric band.
Evans is one of the great blues singers. He's a big man with a big instrument, and here he employs its rougher, stronger side, eschewing the sweet harmonies he's always utilized as a back-up singer. Puttin' It Down taps into this power; even the mellow songs are rendered with the growling resonance of a Harley at idle.
Cooder plays with an urgency we haven't heard on any of his own albums for quite some time, yet that intensity is tempered by a restraint that serves to increase the tension in his solos. And Jim Keltner, who sits in on four of the tracks, has never been recorded better. His trapset is intensely present, and the drums sound perfectly integrated into the band sound—a rarity these days, since most producers resort to isolation booths for the percussion. If Harley does, it never sounds it—as they say, the height of art is to conceal art. The other six tracks feature Phil Bloch on drums; if anything, he adds an even greater sense of relaxed swing to the proceedings. Jorge Calderon's bass is full of verve as it bubbles down under; his sound is lithe and articulate.
But it's the songs that most distinguish this disc from its predecessor. While "Money In Your Pocket," a rollicking tale of a band scrambling for cash, or "Too Many Ups and Downs," an up-tempo rumination on modern life, would not have seemed out of place on the preceding disc, Blues for Thought had nothing like J.B. Lenoir's "Down In Mississippi," an eight-minute meditation on racism that transcends verismo opera in its emotional intensity. Wrenching the lyrics as though out of his own guts, Evans growls, shouts, and moans over a moody, atmospheric stew leavened with wails from Cooder's slide and "One Lip Willy" Scanlyn's harmonica. "They had a huntin' season on rabbits / Shoot 'em and you gonna end up in jail / But it was always open season on me / Nobody would need no bail..." Evans is a Mississippi native; he's lived this.
As powerful as the rest of the album is, "Down In Mississippi" is its stand-out, although "Blues No More," with its relaxed plaintiveness and loose, communal vibe, comes damn close. The only misstep is "Nasty Doll," a tasty shuffle blues marred by boneheaded macho lyrical posturing. But that's why God invented remote controls.
I brought this disc in to Stereophile's listening room one day and cranked it up on the Thiel CS7s. It was like calling zombies out of the swamp as, one by one, Stereophile employees were pulled into the room to demand, "What is that record?" A hard audience to impress, but if AudioQuest had set up a booth out front, they'd have sold their limit that day.
The LP, which for timing reasons does not include "Nasty Doll" or "A Lover Like You," offers even more punchy presence—and murky atmospherics in "Down In Mississippi." AudioQuest has recently begun to offer only some of its recordings on LP, as vinyl sales have been disappointing. There's no excuse not to buy this one: it features superlative sound and powerfully moving music. No matter what format you choose, you won't just be getting our Recording of the Month; you'll be getting one for the ages.—Wes Phillips