Tony Joe White
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There's something powerful about someone performing with just a guitar. The power comes from the bravery of the act. With just voice and guitar, there's really no place to hide. Tony Joe White is positively fearless on Bad Mouthin'. The album features White, his immaculately clean, impossibly quiet 1965 Stratocaster, some occasional drums, a little harmonica, and his deep, resonant voice. It's stark, intimate, and simple, stripping songs and performances down to their purest forms.
Back in April, the New York Times had a video feature showing how the hit song "The Middle," by Zedd, Grey and Maren Morris, was constructed. It's a story of loops and producers and vocalists, with a song worked and worked and worked until it no longer resembled the original. A pretty voice and catchy piano riff eventually became trapped in a box of beats and samples until the only thing left of the songwriter's work was the listener's faint recollection of a melody. Bad Mouthin' is the flip side of that process, letting songs breathe and run free, fully realizing their potential.
White, 75, is a songwriter, having written for everyone from Elvis Presley to Eric Clapton to Kenny Chesney, so it makes sense he privileges the song. However, he's also generous with his covers. He takes on the blues standard "Baby, Please Don't Go," transforming it from a plea into a cool, detached statement featuring White's voice, harmonica, and his electric guitar. The fact that White uses an electric guitar is important. He's playing with a clean tone, but it's not as rich or as resonant as an acoustic. And there's no distortion to hide behind. Instead, you're hearing a sound that's pure yet also processed. That gives his playing an ethereal feeling, almost like you're hearing the memory of his guitar, rather than the actual performance. Between that ghostly tone and his pointedly unemotional vocals, the song becomes a called bluff, rather than a plea.
White's cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" is similarly stark and lonely, like wandering into an abandoned house at dusk. The song is driven by Bryan Owings’ hauntingly robotic drums. Where Hooker's version is a percussive foot-stomp, White slows it down, injecting new melody and practically reinventing the song. His cover of "Heartbreak Hotel" is another reconception of a classic, with White leaning into the heartbreak part of the song, giving it a sound that feels like a cry for help, rather than Elvis' version, which is much more a cry for attention.
White's original songs are also fantastic. "Cool Town Woman" is just White's voice and barely audible guitar. "Stockholm Blues" features White singing defiantly about a most unblues-like city, visiting it "just to see what they were doing."
Bad Mouthin' is a tribute to the power of a great artist. The kind of artist who can hold the listener's attention with nothing more than a voice and a little bit of guitar. It helps that White's voice is so expressive, at times sounding like Muddy Waters. The simple beauty of the album is reminiscent of Waters' classic Folk Singer, another record that shows the impact of a great voice over just the right amount of instrumentation. White similarly doesn't require much more than himself to make an impressive album.
Notable Tracks: “Cool Town Woman” | “Heartbreak Hotel” | “Sundown Blues”