3 out of 5
Produced by: Matthew Johnson
Out of the many gaps in my musical education, blues is likely one of the few catch-all genres in which I can claim zero experience. Most of the other ‘that had a section at Tower Records’ descriptors I have at least one or two feelers in; maybe not enough to speak to anything with education, but at least enough to nod along to a conversation.
Blues: I ain’t got nothin’. It’s not a scene that ever really called to me, nor one that I’ve been able to discern a large difference from artist to artist. That’s not a denigration against the music: it’s my misfortune. Hardcore sounded like noise until I started listening to it more, and I’m sure the same would hold true for blues fans with blues. So I can’t qualify R.L. Burnside’s appeal. The pitchfork review for this disc gives me some understanding of the energy, but A Ass Pocket of Whiskey still, mostly, just sounds like generic blues to me, albeit with swearing and with Jon Spencer jamming and shrieking in the background.
Jon Spencer, meanwhile, you can ‘get’ just from looking at a picture and listening to thirty seconds of any given song of his. While the above intro also means I can’t get into the debate as to whether or not Spencer is blues, faux swagger or no, I find his energy convincing. Similarly, when Burnside is telling me that he can tell he has the blues by the way his cat greets him with a warbling meow, or when he’s telling a story in which he threatens that that’d better be blood dripping down his mate’s leg as opposed to their bottle of whiskey (stored in that there ass pocket…), well, yes, I find Burnside’s genre convictions equally convincing. And by dint of this being his album, with Spencer’s group backing him up, it undeniably is blues.
And the rock backing works. Burnside’s (presumed) guitar playing is mixed low, but you can hear him jamming along while Simins, Bauer, and Spencer muscle-y jam atop, Spencer interjecting now and again with hype-man-esque exultations, or at one point getting slapped down for asking for ‘forty nickels’ for a bag of chips. I’m not sure what the outward appeal is, here – meaning I don’t know if this record works more for Burnside fans or Spencer fans, or more if it’s the novelty of the mash-up (though apparently they had all toured together prior to this recording) – but I’d think if you’re a blues-adjacent listener who likes their albums more raw and dipped in rock, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey has about forty minutes of quality jams for yer pleasure.