Saturday, December 29, 2018

Henry Townsend: “Mule” (1980/2018) CD Review

Are you in need of some good honest blues? Omnivore Recordings has re-issued Henry Townsend’s 1980 album Mule, with a lot of bonus tracks. Henry Townsend started recording in the late 1920s, as a lead and as an accompanist, and was given the nickname Mule apparently because of his reliable character. Mule was originally released in 1980 on Nighthawk Records. And 1980 was certainly a time to have the blues. That was the year the country went sideways and elected a total rat bastard to the highest office in the land. Can you imagine? Well, it’s an excellent album. Every second of this album is honest, real and pulsing with the blues. Henry Townsend plays both piano and guitar on this album, and on most tracks performs solo. However, he does have a few guests joining him on certain tracks. This special re-issue contains newly updated liner notes by Leroy Jodie Pierson, who wrote the original liner notes in 1979. These liner notes give a good deal of biographical information and make it clear that Henry Townsend lived the blues from a very early age, having to run away from an abusive home life at the age of nine. Interestingly, though the liner notes have been updated, they do not continue Henry’s story past the original release of this record. According to a portion of the original liner notes, most of the tracks on this album were improvised in the studio, which is incredible. All of this re-issue’s bonus tracks were previously unreleased.

The disc opens with “Bad Luck Dice,” with Henry Townsend on piano and vocals. This is some pure, damn good blues, with Henry rocking those keys. “I’ve lost all I had,” he tells us as the song begins. And what better line is there to start a blues album? That’s followed by “Nothing But Trouble,” a perfect blues title. He is on piano on this one too. He sings, “You stand by my side and tell me you’re not going to treat me wrong.” Even before he finishes that line, you know he’s about to divulge how she did him wrong. These things don’t end well, not in the blues. “I see the world of trouble right now,” he says. Hell, so do we all. But he makes some changes, as the blues allows you to do that, and he tells her “I ain’t gonna let you worry my life no more.”

Yank Rachell then joins Henry on mandolin on “Things Have Changed,” with Henry on piano, a completely delicious combination of sounds. Henry starts this one off saying he was doing all right as long as he was in his woman’s arms. Ah yes, what a great feeling. But of course the song’s title is “Things Have Changed,” so you know things are going to go wrong. And indeed, damn, he discovers she never loved him. Yet the song has something of a cheerful vibe, and I dig those instrumental sections. And I love Henry’s work on piano on the following track, “The Old Man’s Soul.” And what is it that makes the women of blues songs treat their men so poorly, especially when the men are trying so hard?  Well, in “Tears Come Rollin’ Down,” we get to hear the woman’s side. The vocals on this song are provided by Vernell Townsend, Henry’s wife, and she delivers an excellent performance. “He kissed me good night/And I knew this meant goodbye.” This track also features some great, loose guitar-playing.

There is some interesting guitar work on “Talkin’ Guitar Blues,” with a staccato style at certain points. And check out these lines: “Yes, I want to tell you, baby, I want to tell you what it’s all about/Well, you’re locked up in my heart, and I really don’t want to let you out.” Both Henry Townsend and Yank Rachell play guitar on this track. Henry is back on piano for “Alley Strut,” a groovy instrumental number. That’s followed by “Can’t You See,” one of my favorite tracks. Henry plays guitar on this one. After a moment it becomes a duet with Vernell Townsend, and when she comes in, it is a wonderful surprise. She reminds him he’ll never find another girl like her. It’s a sweet blues love song.

Henry is on piano for “The Train Is At The Station,” a totally enjoyable tune in which he sings “As bad I hate to leave, I know I’ve got to get rid of you.” Ouch. He tells her he’s at the station and has to get away from her. But of course, he’s singing this to her, so you have to doubt whether he really wants to go. Clearly his mind is still with her. And indeed he then sings, “Well, I know it’s going to hurt me because tears began to come down from my eyes.” I love the piano, by the way. It feels like he’s playing right in my home; it has the loose kind of feel, which I suppose comes from being improvised in the studio. The original album then concludes with “Overstayed My Time,” with Henry again on piano.

Bonus Tracks

This re-issue includes eight bonus tracks, none of which were previously released. The first is “The Other Night,” which features some cool work on piano. It is a song about troubles in a relationship, about a dishonest woman. Yank Rachell joins him on mandolin for “Broken Home Blues,” a song about a breakup, and the results. “Since that time, a whole lot of things have gone wrong.” Then Norman Merritt joins him on guitar for “Going Back To My Baby.” Henry starts this one by telling us, “I’m going back to my baby and I’m not going to leave no more.” It doesn’t seem like the strongest relationship, but perhaps it will work out anyway. It’s interesting how many of these songs are about relationships. But isn’t that where the best of life comes from? After all, what’s more important? So when it goes wrong, it means more to us and affects us more strongly, more acutely than if some other aspect of life goes shitty.

“Going Back To My Baby” is followed by “Nice And Kind,” with Henry performing solo on piano and vocals.  This is a good song in which he tells us of a decision to attempt to be nice and kind. “Well, I don’t want to worry, don’t want to worry my life anymore/I don’t want to waste my life, people, like I did one time before.” Both Henry and Yank Rachell play guitar on “Goin’ Back Down South.” These tracks are so good, I have to wonder why they were left unissued until now.  On “Turned On And Off” he sings “I’m going to find my way/And I don’t know where I want to go.” That sounds just about right, being optimistic amid some personal chaos. “Look Over Yonder” features some delightful work on keys. He even seems excited about it, commenting “Oh yeah” at one point. “I know the man couldn’t take you, darling, if you didn’t want to go.” The disc then concludes with “Since You’ve Come Back To Me,” which features Norman Merritt on guitar. Henry cuts loose on the keys at certain times, which is wonderful. This song contains a nod to one of the other bonus tracks in the line “You don’t treat me nice and kind no more.” But then things seem better, as he tells us “My heart’s beating real hard and strong/Well, I feel all right, baby/Since you have come back home.”

CD Track List
  1. Bad Luck Dice
  2. Nothing But Trouble
  3. Things Have Changed
  4. The Old Man’s Soul
  5. Tears Come Rollin’ Down
  6. It’s A Hard Road To Travel
  7. Talkin’ Guitar Blues
  8. I’m Just An Ordinary Man
  9. Alley Strut
  10. Can’t You See
  11. Dark Clouds Rising
  12. The Train Is At The Station
  13. Overstayed My Time
  14. The Other Night
  15. Broken Home Blues
  16. Going Back To My Baby
  17. Nice And Kind
  18. Goin’ Back Down South
  19. Turned On And Off
  20. Look Over Yonder
  21. Since You’ve Come Back To Me 
Mule was released on December 14, 2018 through Omnivore Recordings.

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