Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Swamp Dogg returns... again

Everyone has their favorite cult artist- someone they love though they know they'll never make the big time. For me, the list includes Alex Chilton, Terry Allen, Kevin Coyne, Jad Fair and... a certain producer-turned-singer, not to mention noted songwriter (his songs and/or production have found their way to everyone from Tammy Wynette to Jimmy Cliff to the Commodores). Yes, Mr. Jerry Williams has had quite a storied career.

On his own as Swamp Dogg, his career has been full of humorous soul- kinda raunchy and funny but nowhere as dirty as say Millie Jackson (who I miss) not to mention some good socially conscious numbers which still have their share of laffs ("Call Me Nigger," "F*ck the Bomb," "Synthetic World"). And while his albums have had their share of inspired covers ("In the Midnight Hour, " "Sam Stone"), he's now put together a whole album of covers (with one exception): Give Em As Little As You Can...As Often As You Have To...or...A Tribute To Rock 'n' Roll on S-Curve.

The bad news is that when you read the song listing, you see that the choices are... well, kinda obvious: "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Satisfaction," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Great Balls of Fire." But what makes cover versions worthwhile is when they can reimagine and/or transform a song: think of what Hendrix did to Dylan's "Watchtower" or Coltrane doing "My Favorite Things." In cases like that, the artists rethink the song, taking them to places that the original artist hadn't imagined. While Dogg doesn't reach such lofty heights as Jimi or Trane, he does put his stamp on the songs, which is all you could hope for with covers, right?

For Give Em As Little As You Can... (did I also mention that he has great album titles?), Mr. Dogg applies late 70's/early 80's rock movies (flashy guitar solos, vocoder, syndrums) to oldies rock, adding more than a touch of soul as you'd expect. As such, "Ain't That A Shame" is transformed from Fats' gorgeous ease into a soul shout and even some ZZ Top boogie, "Johnny B. Goode" has extended breaks in each line of the verses and P-Funk synth/vocal interludes, "Great Balls of Fire" is slowed down to a sly/strutting pace complete with fuzz guitar, ham-fisted Bob Seger rock moves and chants of "Fir-ah, Fir-ah, Ooo!" (shade of Ohio Players), "Heartbreak Hotel" is as much a tribute to James Brown as it is Elvis, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" is done at an Al Green pace so that you don't even recognize it until a few lines in and "Satisfaction" moves from slow-burn soul to gospel-rock.

Dogg being the soul man that he is, he can't resist sneaking some ringers in too. "I Shot the Sheriff" has a skank mixed with soul-strut and scatting at the end, the Temps' "My Girl" has the famous guitar hook intact but is paced much more slower, sinuously, bending the lyrics in the middle of the lines and hilariously riffing off the words ("what makes that big ol' fool act that way... that sexy, sexy thang... can I get a witness... better keep your dirty hands off my girl...") and Aretha's "I Never Loved A Man" becomes "I Never Loved A Woman" at a faster pace. And then in an immodest touch, he covers his own classic "Total Destruction to Your Mind," this time in a flashy update with some extended jamming at the end.

In all, a fun, very respectable excursion and a nice reworking of some well-worn classics. I'd love to hear him do the same for a country covers album some day (hint, hint).

See the Swamp Dogg homepage (which is a little out of date) and hear some samples from the new album at the Tower Records site (hey, they're still around online!) and read a late 90's PSF interview done by Richie Unterberger and 2007 PopMatters interview by Robin Cook (aka my boo).


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