Listen Up: Wednesday, June 06, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Little Axe

Hard Grind (Fat Possum Records)

By Matthew Smith

You would think that with a name like Little Axe this band would pump out Native American music. Actually, they do a little bit of everything, from blues to techno. It’s primarily made up of legendary producer Adrian Sherwood (Lee “Scratch” Perry, Ministry) and singer/guitarist Skip McDonald (former house guitarist for Sugar Hill Records), with various other musicians of similarly impressive musical pedigree filling in as needed.

Hard Grind, the group’s third c.d., is billed as a return to the blues McDonald grew up with and learned from his father. It adds to their foundation of sweaty, deep, delta blues with a wash of dub, reggae, soul, gospel, and electronica. What sounds like messy, kitchen-sink experimentation somehow succeeds. (Mostly: Occasionally you do wish they would drop the electric mud swirl long enough to just sing a song.)

Hard Grind succeeds largely because, for all its nods to the past, it feels new. Most modern blues, like most modern rock, has long been mired in the been-there/done-that rut. Too many modern blues players, over-awed by past giants, release over-earnest, freeze-dried, formulaic treacle, polite stuff that neither breathes nor bleeds. Not so Little Axe.

Hard Grind represents a tiny step forward for a genre stuck in purgatory since the early ’60s. There is a clear trail from Robert Johnson to Keb’ Mo’ here, and the players obviously respect their forefathers enough to push the sound out there, not merely perfunctorily rehash what’s already been done before.

Vocals slide in and out of tunes; they’re mostly just murky background moans. Preachers and drunkards in a veritable parade pass through, shout their pieces, and then wander off. Harmonica lines, hazy guitar growls, and random space blips create a mix as dangerous and distorted as it is intoxicating. Without being hokey, this sound revels in the sacred and profane. One gospel-tinged number concerns it being “tight like that.”

It’s not farfetched to imagine this as the sound of Jimi Hendrix had he lived or Sly Stone had he kept it together. Sticky and sweet, Hard Grind feels like the perfect Texas summer soundtrack.


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