R.L. Burnside Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down

R.L. Burnside is among the last of a dying breed, namely a rough and tumble blues shouter with an unruly guitar out of the Mississippi hill country, which is about as close as you can come to being untouched by the late 20th century in contemporary North America. But ever since his association with Jon Spencer proved that an ornery Deep South outlaw with a clutch of hard John Lee Hooker-style blues grooves could find an audience with white campus radio listeners, his handlers have been unable to resist trying to cross him over into other alternative-ish markets. The latest, nicely titled Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down, shows that there's nothing like trying to broaden an artist's palette to pour a floodlight on his limitations. Burnside can holler with the best of them, but it will come as a surprise to no one that Burnside is out of his depth as a soul singer, and yet there he is doing a pointless and dispirited version of "Chain of Fools." Much of this change of tack seems to be the doing of co-producer Andy Kaulkin, who has apparently tried to recast Burnside as a gangsta blues man, replete with Dr. Dre keyboards and soft R&B-style g-rap. It's an intriguing and in some ways irresistible conceit - Burnside indeed has the chequered past gangsta rappers front about. But those lazy grooves, and even the blues-rock tracks that saunter amiably, leave him sounding complacent and tired. Even though there's little of his vintage raunch, the album still works well when he keeps things simple and in a rough-hewn hill country blues mode. Not coincidentally, those tracks, "Hard Time Killing Floor," "Bad Luck City" and "R.L.'s Story," are also the scariest, the last track in particular being a harrowing autobiographical tale that sounds like a Smithsonian Folkways field recording gone seriously off the rails. (Fat Possum)