Pucker up Buttercup
As the blues continues to work its way into the pop mainstream via smoothies such as Keb' Mo', Jonny Lang, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, artists like Paul Jones are left to maintain the music's brutal power and raw, soaked-sheets sexuality. Pucker up Buttercup -- the Belzoni, Mississippi-born Jones' second album -- is a raucous, hell-raising mess of a record, splattered with his ultra-distorted guitar, punctuated with his howling vocals, and propelled by the savage pounding of his drummer, Pickle (that's it, just Pickle). The result is a ragged masterpiece, a rural barnburner that rocks with wicked ferocity, from the blistering opener, "Roll That Woman," to the drunken angst and irritation of the self-explanatory closer, "Guess I Just Fucked It All Up."
Like their Fat Possum compadres TModel Ford and Spam, Jones and Pickle favor a distinctly primal approach to the North Mississippi blues, with loose-limbed boogie stomps and hypnotic, trancelike dirges. But where Ford prefers to expound on his exploits as a hot-tempered eccentric, Jones spans the emotional gamut, offering up the boozily pastoral "Hangin' With the Boys," lascivious romantic come-ons à la "Pucker up Buttercup" and the admonitory "Don't Laugh at Me." The tempos are furious throughout, with Pickle banging out simple rhythms for Jones' crude, often manic guitar work. (Think John Lee Hooker with a fuzz box and a taste for amphetamines, and you get the sonic picture.)
Surprisingly, the standout among this batch of liquor-soaked anthems, blazing instrumentals, and horny manifestos is "Lead Me On," a gospel standard with Jones pleading for heavenly salvation over Pickle's unspeakably lovely percussion. Given the ribald stuff that's obviously close to his heart, Jones probably needs salvation. And given the gutbucket brilliance shot throughout Pucker up Buttercup, he deserves nothing less. -- John Floyd
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The title of Los Lobos' 1984 breakthrough album posed a rhetorical question: How Will the Wolf Survive? It was a title that not only called into question the future of the band, but also the future of America's Latin community. Fifteen years later the term Latin has been thoroughly co-opted by Madison Avenue and an increasingly unscrupulous entertainment industry. As a result, Hispanic pop acts like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez have probably pocketed more cash this year than Los Lobos has during its 16-year recording career. That's sad, especially considering the high caliber of Los Lobos' new album. Veritably bursting with jazzy attitude and beatnik voodoo vibes, This Time is a hallucinogenic masterwork that ranks among the band's best recordings.
Overseen by the group's long-time producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, This Time sounds like it was recorded by '50s hipsters under the influence of potent psychedelics. The album boasts a compressed, reverberant tone that complements the spooky melodies of songwriters David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, and Cesar Rosas. In the all-things-considered world of these capable tunesmiths, pop music is defined as a hazy blend of R&B, beat-era jazz, and primitive Latin folk. This Time possesses everything most modern pop lacks: soulfulness, a lyrical thrust void of preachiness, and roots.
Indeed, the disc is such a time-warped, retro treat, it seems to have arrived fully formed from a bygone era. Bluesy tracks like "High Places," "Viking," and "Some Say, Some Do" veritably reek of pot and incense. Even overtly "Latin" tracks like "Corazón" and "La Playa" boast an ethereal jazziness. These songs are welcome improvements on some of the band's previous norteño experiments, which were beginning to sound like perfunctory nods to its Hispanic fans.
By reconciling its Latin, African-American, and European influences, Los Lobos is creating music of truly global proportions. This Time doesn't really qualify as new Latin pop. That's a good thing. As the band closes in on 20 years of recording, Los Lobos has transcended trends and categories. The wolf survives in style. -- Bruce Britt