Harry Manx & Kevin Breit: Strictly Whatever

With a title like Strictly Whatever, you’d think that the musicians would be phoning in their performances, or otherwise indicating that they don’t care about the music. Not so with Harry Manx and Kevin Breit! Though their third duo album (and their second for Stony Plain Records) is titled Strictly Whatever, it is as passionate and entertaining as their other recorded works.

In some ways, Strictly Whatever is a continuation of their unique musical style, with great harmony vocals, Breit’s fine playing on the guitar and other assorted instruments, and Manx’s Indian-blues fusion and philosophical lyrics (not to mention Art Avalos’ effective percussion). Yet, there are enough differences between this and their previous albums to justify hearing this effort. A lot of the songs are less overtly blues-esque and incorporate influences from other roots genres, including country and even Hawaiian music on “Little Ukelele”. In the long run, this might mean that the record will appeal to a wider audience and help these fine musicians gain more recognition for their considerable talents. Also notable is Manx’s use of the baritone guitar on many of the tracks, which gives the songs a distinctive dark flavor. Interestingly, the Indian flavor characteristic of Manx’s music is also toned down, with his signature instrument, the mohan veena, appearing on only one song.

The album commences with a slower tune entitled “Sunny”, whose minor key and introspective sound contrast nicely with the positive lyrics. Other highlights include “Looking For a Brand New World” and “Dance with Delilah”, two up-tempo feel-good songs with some interesting wah-wah guitar on the former and baritone guitar on the latter; both would make excellent theme music for the summer season! Speaking of summer, “Hippy Trippy” is a fun surf-style song, with Breit’s buzzing electric sitar handling the melody and solos (surf sitar!). “Note To Self” is an even trippier, atmospheric instrumental piece, functioning as an effective prelude to the haunting “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep”. There is some intriguing John Schofield-esque guitar soloing on “Looking For a Plan” (presumably by Breit), which liven up an otherwise average song. For fans of classic blues, the cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Mr. Lucky” is probably the most straight-ahead blues performance here, with some fine weaving guitars and Manx’s unique vocals.

Being a fan of the blues and the duo’s previous albums, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the broader influences displayed on this new album. I was expecting my reaction to be strictly whatever. But I was wrong. This is a great album that flows nicely from start to finish, and is a worthy addition to Manx and Breit’s discography!


The Howlin' Wolf Album: Still Dogs****?

It is likely that no record in Howlin’ Wolf’s discography is as controversial and polarizing as his 1969 psychedelic effort, The Howlin’ Wolf Album (or, as it is titled on the stark cover: This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either). Long ravaged by blues critics, listeners, and the Wolf himself (who called it ‘dogs****’), The Howlin’ Wolf Album has been out of print for many years. Its recent reissue by Get On Down records begs the question: is it really ‘dogs****’ as the titular artist claimed, or is it a hidden gem in the Howlin’ Wolf discography?

In my opinion, The Howlin’ Wolf Album is closer to the former rather than the latter, and listening to the record, it is quite obvious why the Wolf and his fans dismissed the album (besides producer Marshall Chess’s assertion that the negativity in the album title undermined its sales). Although the album consists of remakes of the Wolf’s well-known hits, the psychedelic interpretations bear little resemblance to the originals. Even with the adventurous arrangements, most of the songs sound similar to each other, and the effect is quite monotonous in the end. Furthermore, the tempos lack the rhythmic quirkiness of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic works, and tend to drag after a while. And don’t get me started on the uninspired instrumentation with fuzzed-out electronics, guitars, and plodding drums prominent in the mix!

That being said, The Howlin’ Wolf Album is not without its merits. Musicians as diverse as John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Jack White (The White Stripes), and Chuck D have found value in the psychedelic works of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and deservedly so. Howlin’ Wolf’s voice and personality cut through the busy mix on almost every track, and his spoken introductions on “Tail Dragger” and “Back Door Man” are a valuable insight into the background of the album and the man's personality. Although he is unfortunately buried in the mix, you can still occasionally hear Hubert Sumlin’s intricate guitar work, which is always a pleasure. Additionally, some of the Wolf’s songs actually sound good in a psychedelic blues-rock context. The flute-and-bass led psychedelic rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” is as hypnotic as the original, and possibly even more haunting. “The Red Rooster” has an almost funk-rock feel to it, which works well; I hear similarities between this track and “I Got Your Number” from Guitar Shorty’s 2006 album We The People. Unlike the rest of the album, the concluding track “Back Door Man” refreshingly has a traditional blues rhythm and the acid-influenced sounds are kept to a minimum while the Wolf proclaims how he ‘eats more chicken [than] any man seen’ and Sumlin responds with spiky lead guitar.

While it’s not a misunderstood masterpiece, it’s not ‘dogs****’ either. The Howlin’ Wolf Album is worth checking out if you enjoy Howlin’ Wolf and/or psychedelic blues-influenced music. However, despite the title, this is not THE Howlin’ Wolf album to check out if you want to hear what the Wolf did best and see why he was/is so revered by music fans.