Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Howlin Wolf – The Howlin Wolf Album


The blues is the cornerstone of rock, jazz, hip hop and just about any other kind of music that you can think of.   Songs of hardship, pain and suffering at someone else’s hands were commonplace in the early years of America.  The blues is the one true American art form,evolving from the work chanting of slaves to minstrel singers and right down to the Mississippi delta  where artists such as Skip James, Son House and the great Robert Johnson started playing this music and unbeknownst to them marched right into history having performed some of the greatest songs ever recorded. 
Our discussion doesn’t start as early as Robert Johnson, but it does get it’s start in the delta of Mississippi as well.  The legendary Howlin’ Wolf brought his delta blues to Chicago in the 1950’s and released his songs on the now defunct Chess Records.  These were pivotal times for  the blues as artists in Chicago, Kansas City and Memphis began to experiment with electric guitar instead of the old acoustics that were used by the Mississippi Delta singers. 
This is where so called “blues purists” occasionally have a split of opinions.  Some will argue that the end of the blues came about when the electric guitar was introduced.  That somehow, this new amplification and distortion, giving the blues a much sharper bite musically, took away from the artists raw emotion that was, to them, only present when it was one man, an acoustic and the troubles of the world on his shoulders.
When record sales started to slip for Wolf and the rest of the Chess family, it became time to think outside the box and try something new.  Muddy Waters made a psychedelic rock/blues album called Electric Mud with a full band, trading his acoustic fora full blown rock and roll sound.  This left Howlin’ Wolf the lone holdout on the acoustic in the Chess family. 
In 1968 Howlin Wolf recorded an album that is the topic of today’s discussion.  Titled only “The Howlin’ Wolf Album”, it hit the market with a bare white cover with black lettering on the cover with the following statement:  “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album.  He doesn’t like it.  He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.”  The album was recorded with the Electric Mud band, the very same psychedelic rock bank that Muddy Waters recorded with the year before and released the Electric Mud album.  Some of Wolf’s most classic tracks are re-envisioned on this record, and in many ways are unrecognizable.  This is not a bad thing at all.  These tracks pay as much tribute to the original recording as possible while making the song sound as fresh as thefirst day anyone had ever heard them. Tracks like Spoonful and Smokestack Lightning, backed up by a fully rounded out band and of course Wolf’s harmonica and voice seem like a perfect match.  Purists refuse to qualify this album as blues stating that it was a mistake. I have heard people say things like “Howlin’ Wolf didn’t like it.  That should tell you something.”  Or, “Wolf didn’t like it and neither do I.”  To me, this just seems like someone who didn’t take the time to get to know the album or just couldn’t stand to hear the remade versions of these songs. It should be pointed out that not 6 months after this album, Wolf released The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions with Eric Clapton, Charlie Watts,Bill Wyman and Steve Winwood.  Everyone at time fears change and embracing an electric sound was a big fear for Howlin’Wolf.  He not only overcame this, he recorded some great electric blues music. 
And now, let’s discuss the technical aspects of this record.  This album is still in print,but just barely.  Make sure to get a copy of this one be it cd, mp3 or LP.  Of course we are discussing the LP version.  The copy that I am reviewing is a reprint (originals go for upwards of300 or more!) but it is a beautifully made reprint with careful eye for detail.  This copy is part of a limited edition pressing of only 1000 pieces. The artwork is faithfully restored as well as the giant poster insert of the album artwork.  This is pressed on audiophile 180 gram vinyl and released by Cadet Concept Records and distributed by EMI.  The stereo imaging on this record is terrific.  Each instrument presents itself with enough space to breathe and in enough detail you can tell who was sitting where during the sessions. The bass is strong and the drums are crisp and loud.  This is a Howlin’ Wolf album so of course the most important part of this recording is his voice.  It is crystal clear and right up front in the mix. 
No record collection is complete without the blues (but truly what record collection is ever complete?).  And no blues collection is complete without Howlin’ Wolf and of course, no Howlin’ Wolf collection is complete without The Howlin’ Wolf Album.  Don’t take my word for it and of course don’t take the word of a so called “blues purist”either.  Pick this up, put it on and take a journey with an artist whose name is as iconic as his music and hear what it sounds like to face your fears head on.  

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