Sunday, October 4, 2015

CD Review: Webb Wilder's Mississippi Mōderne (2015)

Webb Wilder's Mississippi Mōderne
It’s been nearly 30 years since Americana legend Webb Wilder released It Came From Nashville, the singer’s rowdy debut, thereby staking his claim alongside such ground-breaking Music City bands as Jason & the Scorchers, the Questionnaires, and Tim Krekel and the Sluggers, among others, as one of the best and brightest the city had to offer from the rough ‘n’ tumble Nashville rock underground of the 1980s. A brief flirtation with major label success resulted in a pair of excellent and influential albums – Hybrid Vigor and Doo Dad – but over the past decade or so, Wilder has recorded and toured sporadically.

Wilder released a couple of fine albums with roots ‘n’ blues label Blind Pig Records in 2008 and ’09, but he has returns to the sympathetic, Southern roots-rock imprint Landslide Records for Mississippi Mōderne. Wilder’s first new studio album in almost six years, and his first for Landslide since 2005’s excellent and tragically-overlooked About Time LP, he’s is backed on Mississippi Mōderne by his band the Beatnecks, comprised of longtime compatriots Tom Comet on bass and Jimmy Lester on drums, with guitarist Bob Williams and guests like guitarists George Bradfute and Joe V. McMahan. 

Webb Wilder’s Mississippi Mōderne

Wilder’s unique brew of roots-rock has always offered a fine balance between twang and bang, a blend of classic country and British Invasion influences with more than a soupçon of blues thrown in for flavor. You’ll find little different in the grooves of Mississippi Mōderne. It’s a familiar formula, and one that Wilder has always done well with, which is not to say that there’s anything formulaic with these white-hot new tunes – just the mad scientist that is Webb Wilder finding a new way to mix the same old elements into a new sonic gumbo.

The album is introduced by the haunting, Delta blues-styled “Stones In My Pathway,” a Robert Johnson influenced black cat moan that sets the stage for what follows. Wilder’s original “Rough and Tumble Guy” is a typical rocker from the “Last of the Full Grown Men,” the song long on twangy guitars, rollicking rhythms, and sly, boastful lyrics that would sound exaggerated coming from anybody other than the ever-humble WW. Honestly, how can you dislike a line like “I’ve been to hell and back again, brought back some bar-b-que for my friends,” which is surrounded by crashing drumbeats and piercing guitar licks?

Too Much Sugar For A Nickel

Where Wilder really shines is with his heartfelt love songs, of which Mississippi Mōderne has more than a few. “Only A Fool,” a Wilder co-write with Memphis soul legend Dan Penn, is one such example, a mid-tempo rocker that pours hot coals on the lyrical protagonist’s already-raw emotions. Wilder conveys heartbreak and misery with the bruised dignity of country great George Jones; even though his vocals express a winsome hopefulness, the tears are never far beneath the surface. A cover of the Conway Twitty deep track “Lonely Blue Boy” covers much the same thematic ground, albeit with crunchier guitars than the long-gone original, and a lurking rhythm that shadows all but Wilder’s deep baritone vocals. Whereas Conway was trying to sound like Elvis Presley, Wilder sounds more like Carl Perkins, re-making the song in his own indomitable manner.

Wilder’s “Too Much Sugar For A Nickel” is one of my two faves on Mississippi Mōderne, the sort of smooth-sounding, throwback roots-rocker with clever lyrics that has become a sort of signature for the singer. The title is a reference to any deal that’s too good to be true, and the love triangle Webb croons about here is provided a gentle but firm country-flavored soundtrack with shimmering guitars and steady drumbeats. In a similar vein, long-time Wilder friend and former producer R.S. Field contributes my second favorite song here, “I’m Not Just Anybody’s Fool,” which sounds not unlike some of Threk Michaels’ best-written ballads. Field is a scholar of old-school rock and country music and straddles the fine line between both here, Wilder’s voice is tailor-made for the song’s filigree lyrics, delivering the lovelorn plea with grace and elegance above some equally impressive fretwork.

Stones In My Pathway

It’s taken me a while to warm up to the blustery “Yard Dog,” and not just because of its psychobilly edge, Wilder’s studio-echoed vox, or the too-precious lyrics. The song’s swagger is built from chaotic guitar licks, machinegun drumbeats, and overall smothering instrumentation and kudzu-thick production that will have you suffering from claustrophobia before the end of the song. Showcasing his blues chops, Wilder takes on Chicago blues legend Otis Rush’s obscure “It Takes Time” (from Rush’s classic Mourning In The Morning LP). Scorching guitar licks open the track before Wilder’s larger-than-life voice jumps in headfirst. Wilder and the Beatnecks capture the spirit of Rush’s original, but pump it up on steroids with finger-blistering fretwork, a hale and hearty bass line, and big beat drums. Wilder walks even farther onto blues turf with an inspired cover of the great Jimmy Reed’s “I’m Gonna Get My Baby,” the band building an unassailable wall of sound atop of which Wilder’s studio-altered vocals are blasting alongside otherworldly guitars.

There are a lot of romantic ‘fools’ to be found on Mississippi Mōderne – we’ve heard “Only A Fool” and “I’m Not Just Anybody’s Fool” already, and Wilder pulls off a trifecta with an astounding cover of country great Charlie Rich’s “Who Will The Next Fool Be?” With a low-key instrumental arrangement that features a heavy dose of guest Micah Hulscher’s jazz-flecked, honky-tonk piano, Webb belts out an emotional take on the country classic. Mississippi Mōderne closes out with a full-length “Stones In My Pathway,” Wilder’s eerie voice altered to sound as if it’s emerging from an ancient 78rpm slab o’ sandpapered shellac. The song’s upbeat tempo and church revival fervor perfectly captures a Delta blues vibe, and it could just as easily be Charlie Patton tearing the roof off this juke-joint as WW.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

I don’t believe that Webb Wilder has every made a bad record – only good and great – and the Rev has heard every single one of ‘em! Still, Mississippi Mōderne is, perhaps, the best album Wilder’s made since It Came From Nashville. In the hands of a lesser artist, this ramshackle mix of garage-rock, blues, and old-school country music would sink like an over-inflated soufflé, and the album’s often over-the-top lyrics would lack in sincerity coming from a singer without Wilder’s charismatic personality. Backed by the grizzled veterans that comprise the Beatnecks, though, Wilder delivers a powerful and entertaining collection in Mississippi Mōderne. Grade: A+ (Landslide Records, released September 25, 2015)

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