Various Artists – Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough

Various Artists
Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough

Mississippi-based Fat Possum records has done a bang-up job bringing some of the world’s lesser-known bluesmen to the masses. By “lesser-known,” one must assume you aren’t so tapped into the heart of blues that you already knew who R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, or Solomon Burke before this record label began releasing their work. Like many of his peers, Junior remained fairly obscure until he was featured in the 1990 documentary Deep Blues. In 1992, at the age of 62, Kimbrough cut his first full-length album and managed a few more before his death in 1998. Although his time in the limelight didn’t last long, Junior Kimbrough’s time in this world was far from empty. In his lifetime he fathered 36 children and ran his own juke joint where he played every Sunday night – hence the title of this release.

Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough is a tribute record, and maybe this is a format that’s been done to death, but sometimes it serves a higher purpose. In this case, the main intention is definitely to expose people to Kimbrough’s music. This alone is a worthy effort, as Junior’s style of blues had a primal edge to it with lyrics that tend to dip into the darker side of being. Perhaps the secondary function of the album is to highlight the contributing bands. While Fat Possum plucked participants from their own roster, such as the Black Keys and Thee Shams, they also pulled together a surprisingly diverse group of musicians interested in playing a part in this tribute, including Blues Explosion, Pete Yorn, the Fiery Furnaces, and Mark Lanegan.

Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough opens and closes with two versions of “You Better Run” done by Iggy and the Stooges. While the song contains rather sinister lyrics about rape, Iggy manages to make the storyline almost cartoonish, which should come as no surprise. While some may find it odd that Iggy & the Stooges signed up to do a cover on a blues tribute, Junior did actually tour with Iggy for a short period of time. “You Better Run” is one of the tracks that sound least inspired by the original, as it’s clearly more Iggy than Junior. The same is true of the Spiritualized track “Sad Days Lonely Nights” and to a lesser extent “Lord Have Mercy on Me” by Outrageous Cherry and “Pull Your Clothes Off” by Whitey Kirst. These performances are good, but I don’t find them truly inspired. In the case of Entrance and Cat Power’s version of “Do the Romp,” it’s less a case of being impassionate and more just overwhelming weirdness from the back and forth vocals and seemingly uninterested guitar playing.

The few songs here that I don’t enjoy aren’t horrible by any means, they just pale in comparison to the tracks that really hit the mark. Blues Explosion offers a relaxed version of “Meet Me in the City” before the Heartless Bastards blast out “Done Got Old.” The Heartless Bastards’ number features Erika Wennerstrom’s thick rock-goddess vocals and a down ‘n dirty rhythm that will shake your bones. The Black Keys give “My Mind is Ramblin’” a hazy feel, while Pete Yorn presents “I Feel Good Again” with a bit of boogie. The second track featuring a female singer, “I’m Leaving” by the Fiery Furnaces is another standout. In this case, the song is treated to a reverberating backbeat and some great guitar work. Mark Lanegan’s “All Night Long” also stands out because his deep voice fits sexy lyrics like “girl the way you love, make me speak in tongues” perfectly. Other songs, like the Ponys doing “Burn in Hell,” take the darker side of Junior’s songs even deeper into an ominous place most people will never visit in real life.

Maybe the world really doesn’t need another tribute album, but Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough gives both the contributing musicians and the listener a chance to experience a kind of blues that died when Junior Kimbrough did. Make no mistake – this isn’t just an attempt to recreate Junior’s songs, but most of the bands here do manage to tap into the writhing, murky world that accompanied Kimbrough’s whiskey-soaked late nights at his juke joint. As with any tribute album, part of the point is to intrigue the listener enough to check out the artist being highlighted, and this effort accomplishes that in the first few songs. The rest is just the icing on the cake.