Marlatt strikes blues gold

Something's Wrong (Blue-By-You Records)
Curtis & the Kicks

By Michael Campbell

It's that attribute of music that can render the repertoire of some blues-based bands into harsh repetitive drivel, and other band's performances into compelling satisfaction. It's the same attribute that, even within the paradigm of a traditional music, captures the listener's attention by means of the unexpected. It's a quality that values the note and the rest equally.

It's arrangement.

It's one characteristic that separates Curtis Marlatt (and Kicks, past and present) from many of their peers. Valuable in live performance, it becomes a necessity for recordings that hold up to repeated listening.

It seems that these guys have come up with a very solid recording here, that sparks and ignites in some moments. And though the musical perspective is one seen through blue-colored glasses, this effort manages to flirt successfully with flavors of reggae, New Orleans pre-rock and roll, and Hendrix (there is no category for a composition like "Little Wing").

One notable aspect to these performances is the classy treatment of other folk's blues, such as Fenton Robinson's "You Don't Know What Love Is," Howlin' Wolf's classic "Killin' Floor," Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues," and my favorite cover on the album: "I Just Wanna Make Love To You," written by the legendary Willie Dixon. This cut combines an updated dynamic with the deliberate insistence of the original. It also features the kind of intense, sometimes explosive, snarling Stratocaster abuse usually reserved for the last set at the Cherokee. Throughout the album, Marlatt's guitar style retains its individuality, with nods to the Kings (Albert, BB, and all of 'em, except maybe Don) Stevie Ray, Hendrix, Santana, and maybe a wink at Jeff Beck.

Although I have enjoyed the Kicks' live performance of "Little Wing," I was a bit suprised to find it here on the album. It's such a seductive song for guitarists; in how many other songs can you bend harmonics and still sound so damned lyrical? This song, having survived mostly overblown cover versions by the likes of Derek and the Dominoes, Sting, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, gives Keith Hubbard a tasty opportunity to solo where few keyboards have soloed before, and he makes the most of it.

Besides the consistency of the album, in terms of both song selection and performance, the other bonus is the quality of Marlatt's original composistions, as aptly demonstrated by the title cut. "Something's Wrong" meshes the lyrical immediacy of first-person authenticity with the dignity of powerful instrumental statement over a mournful minor key landscape.