Davis Coen,
Ill Disposition
(219 Records, 2007)

Davis Coen, who hails from South Carolina, characterizes his sound -- a mix of Southern rural styles, folk-revival, skeletal rock 'n' roll and stripped-down r&b -- as "juke-joint meets folkie." That seems close enough. On Ill Disposition it's himself, his guitar and harmonica, and drummer Joe Izzo, with four different bass players showing up separately on most of the rest of the cuts.

As the singer-songwriter era passes (after, I might add, a long-overstayed welcome), Coen is liberated from the obligation to load his album with originals. His own compositions comprise five songs, fewer than half, and I'm relieved to report that all of them do him credit, perhaps none more so than "Good Conversation" with its utterly irresistible drawled reading of the tag line "Last call to see my baby doll." You'd swear the man is singing with marbles in his mouth, but the line as delivered is both funny and sweet -- a love song without a single cliche, a little jewel of writing craft.

Elsewhere, Coen transforms Lieber/Stoller's much-recorded "Kansas City" (first recorded as "K.C. Lovin'" by Little Willie Littlefield in 1952 but better known from the 1959 hit by Wilbert Harrison under its current title) into a driving acoustic slide-guitar blues which -- to what should be the delight of any discerning listener -- causes the song to feel decades older than it is.

His immersion in musical roots buries him deeply enough to take him to more arcane material, including Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock," John Lee Hooker's "Mambo Chillun" and the late Mississippi juke-joint king Junior Kimbrough's "I'm in Love With You," also set in concise folk-blues arrangements. Well-known folk songs such as "Freight Train" (from Elizabeth Cotten) and "Lay Me a Pallet on Your Floor" rise from the dead and live again under Coen's benign influence.

The New Orleans-based 219 Records has been issuing a steady stream of first-rate roots records from gifted young artists whom I suspect most listeners are hearing for the first time. Both Coen and his label are well worth getting to know.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

23 February 2008

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