James Armstrong,
Blues Been Good to Me
(Catfood, 2017)

Johnny Rawls,
Waiting for the Train
(Catfood, 2017)

From the start of their long careers, James Armstrong and Johnny Rawls have been engaged with soul and blues. Neither genre is at the forefront of current black pop music but either is still able to smack the listener upside the head. With their current releases, both on the El Paso-based Catfood Records, Armstrong and Rawls again highlight their consummate professionalism. As I've had occasion to remark before (in my review of Rawls's previous solo disc in this space on 23 January 2016), they also demonstrate that they're practically critic-proof.

Rawls and Armstrong co-produce the latter's Blues Been Good to Me, with the Grammy-award winning Jim Gaines (billed as associate producer on Armstrong's album) overseeing Rawls's Waiting for the Train, the latter backed by the Catfood house band, the Rays, in Texas. Blues Been Good was recorded mostly in a St. Louis studio.

In short, all is in good hands, and if you favor stripped-down, no-nonsense soul, you will be hard-pressed not to like these albums. That established, these observations:

Half of the 10 songs on Waiting are co-writes by vocalist Rawls and Catfood president/Rays bassist Bob Trenchard. Most of the songs take a generally adventurous approach lyrically, carrying the music away from the standard focus on love celebrated or lamented. Rather startlingly, for example, "Las Vegas" is, at one level, about gambling and, on another, about faith and fate, in other words a whole lot more thoughtful than you expect in a music where you count the voice as just another instrument and the words just the notes.

The title in the title song nods to a well-known American folk song, "Waiting for a Train," usually associated with Jimmie Rodgers, except here the train stands in for the range of human longings: escape, wanderlust, even death and its aftermath. Trains as metaphors for life and death go back at least to Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1843 short story "The Celestial Rail-road," and of course they figure in black and white spirituals such as "This Train is Bound for Glory" and "Life's Railway to Heaven." Rawls/Trenchard's contribution stands tall in this noble song tradition.

I had always thought Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" to be a cry of anguish from the confines of a psychic prison, but Rawls's masterly, pointed reading makes that a literal prison. He also turns in stirring takes of songs associated with soul heroes Wilson Pickett, Tyrone Davis and Syl Johnson.

Besides his smooth-textured, listener-friendly singing voice, Armstrong is a fluid electric guitarist, each note clean and uncluttered. His playing always serves the song and never draws attention to itself, though it is eminently worth paying attention to. He seems more influenced by the Motown strain of mid-century soul than Rawls, who is shaped by the Deep Southern school represented by, notably, Stax. Armstrong has fun with "How Sweet It Is to be Loved by You," the Holland/Dozier/Holland tune that charted in Marvin Gaye's version and later James Taylor's. I am not particularly enamored of Motown (so kill me), but the speeded-up arrangement here is a lot of fun. On the more serious original "Early Grave" Robert Johnson's murder by a jealous husband serves as a portent of Armstrong's likely end. I doubt that this is more than a plot device for what otherwise is a song about romantic turmoil, but at least it's an original one.

The title number touts Armstrong's success as a blues entertainer with an international following, while another original, "Second Time Around," opens amusingly with the instantly recognizable chords from the old Johnny Rivers hit "Secret Agent Man." Possibly because it's the fall, my own favorite is Armstrong's soul ballad "Change in the Weather." You'll find your own. Armstrong and Rawls give you much to choose from.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 October 2017

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