With Kimbrough’s death in early '98 the blues world lost one its most uncompromising and idiosyncratic practitioners. All we’re left with now are posthumous collections like this one that out of necessity are forced to scrape the bottom of the corn liquor barrel for ‘new’ and releasable material. Though not imbued with the same level of quality as Fat Possum’s earlier Kimbrough compendium “God Knows I Tried,” the eight tracks included on this new compilation still offer plenty of Junior’s gutbucket grit and pathos.
The first four numbers are culled from home recordings that Kimbrough taped in his living room and were presumably never intended for release. The sound quality is lo-fi in the extreme and the disc sleeve even carries a disclaimer regarding the foggy fidelity. Fat Possum’s crack team of engineers excised some of the extraneous surface noise and household banter, but at the expense of blunting and flattening Kimbrough’s sound. The end result is as frustrating as it is haunting. Junior’s gravelly voice is often far back in the stunted mix. His droning guitar lines take on an even more cavernous clamor than usual over the crackles and hiss of the ragged source tape. Listening to these pieces reminded me of my first exposure to Son House’s 1930 sides for the Paramount label, some of the most sonically suspect recordings ever reissued. Even when buried in such a viscous aural morass, the raw emotive force of the music claws its way through. The version of “Done Got Old,” is a perfect case in point and is spine tingling in its naked hopelessness. The lyrics are simple and rough, but speak with a gruff poetry to the perils and hardships of one’s twilight years.
The second four tracks are pristine by audio comparison and were probably recorded on at least semi-professional equipment. Kimbrough is backed by his usual combo, the ‘Soul Blues Boys’ and the trio churns out grinding readings of some his classics. Junior even pauses repeatedly between tunes to good-naturedly chide the audience. Among the high points is a pounding rendition of “All Night Long” fueled by Junior’s jarring chords and Gary Burnside’s hammering traps.
The two sides of the disc are in many ways like opposite sides of the same coin and offer a fascinating juxtaposition in sound. All of the tunes were recorded prior to Junior’s debut record, “All Night Long” and their relative age is further proof of their worth. The horrible sound on the first four songs may prove difficult to forgive, especially for audiophile listeners, but Kimbrough’s music never was about polish and decorum. Definitely not the place to start if you’re just discovering Junior’s work. If anything the disc sculpts in bold relief the tragedy that the man wasn’t recorded more prolifically and professionally in his lifetime.