Imagine a world in which REM replaced Michael Stipe with Warren Zevon before going into the studio to record a bunch of covers that would end up forming one of the great alt.blues albums. Can’t picture it? Well, try harder. Back in 1990, it totally happened.
I always find it at the very least weird just how few people remember this album. Including me; I’d forgotten all about it, more or less, until I was working on Jim Dead’s Ten Fires album a few years ago and we were discussing what kind of studio sounds to aim for. I kept coming back to Crazyhorse and this. Perfect live-in-the-studio vibe, good and raw.
Ten tracks, all covers, drawing deep from the well of real Americana – classic blues (Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters etc.), folk (Woody Guthrie) and a couple of contemporary gems too. Recorded for fun during a few drunken “off nights” while working on a ‘proper’ Zevon album, it flows perfectly.
The album kicks off with two Johnson numbers (Walking Blues and Travelling Riverside Blues) before blindsiding us with a stripped down, ragged take on Prince’s psych-pop classic Raspberry Beret. Later Howlin’ Wolf’s Willie Dixon-penned Wang Dang Doodle is followed by a note-perfect Battleship Chains (known to me and most folks, I’d imagine, as a Georgia Satellites number). The feel throughout is just what you’d expect from an REM-related project, bearing in mind this is before they were the mild-mannered mandolin botherers of Losing My Religion et al, and Peter Buck steps up for a few surprisingly Stonesy Americana-infused blues leads. Guthrie’s Vigilante Man rounds things off, and it’s a perfect fit.
This album’s relative obscurity remains a mystery to me, particularly given the pedigree of its participants. I picked up a copy of the tape in excellent nick for £3 (happily, by 1990 cassette packaging was competing on a more even playing field with other formats than previously, so it’s a long fold-out inlay with credits, photos and so on). It looks like, out-with the used market, current availability is download only but second hand copies are easy to come by.
However you can get your hands on it, you just should. What a fucking album.