Tracy Nelson’s newest release, Victim of the Blues, isn’t the kind of recording that sends volume meters and fader dials in the studio control room careening wildly into the red with elongated soloing or ear-piercing vocal gymnastics. The presentation is far too reverential toward the blues as a traditional art form to allow for such impertinence. That doesn’t mean it’s old fashioned, nor is it an anachronism.
Victim of the Blues is more of a dedication, a fitting tribute to a style of blues playing that’s nearly extinct. From the selection of songs on the album and the pedigree from whence they hail, to the illustriousness of their respective authors, and even the running order in which the songs are arranged, this record speaks in the present from the distance of time.
If authenticity is what you’re looking for, here it is. To listeners who can remember that far back, the tracks on Victim of the Blues might just sound as vibrant and warm as their original pressings must have sounded when great music like this poured out of jukeboxes across America in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Slide the disc into any disc player and what comes through the circuitry is nothing short of an inspired piece of workmanship, a craft that Nelson has honed through decades of paying her dues.
And I think you’ll like her choices. The two Jimmy Reed numbers, “Shoot My Baby” and “I Know It’s a Sin,” are definitive standouts among many, but the Chester Burnett (aka Howlin’ Wolf)/Willie Dixon collaboration, “Howlin’ For My Baby,” is the true gem to be found here. The track just booms out of the speakers.
Nobody beats the Wolf when it comes to articulating the poignancy of his conflict, be it with the infidelity of a cheating woman or the inequity of the long arm of the law, but Nelson carries it off with easy aplomb. Her voice is especially well suited to a man’s vocal range, its growl and husk providing just the right amount of weight to the lines she delivers. Her chops would do Big Mama Thornton proud.
There’s a certain élan to Nelson’s singing that more than compensates for the fact that she no longer has the classic range she once possessed in her youth. It’s her command of melody that still resonates, the way she lets the notes roll free, bending the syllables in ways that render them as unmistakably Blues, and undeniably hers. What she achieves is total originality: They sound like Tracy Nelson songs.
Nowhere does her star burn brighter than on the two gospel-tinged inclusions, “The Love You Save (May Be Your Own),” and the album closer, “Without Love (There Is Nothing).” These tracks represent Nelson’s ne plus ultra, the moments that define her as both songstress and performer. Here she covers the full gamut of her range with an effortlessness that can only be marveled at. The lady can sing, and on these numbers she’s not alone.
The push and pull created by Nelson and the various back-up singers that accompany her on these and several other tracks gives rise to some of the record’s most interesting cadences. Nelson operates around their “one” with deft precision, sometimes entering a beat ahead, sometimes a hair behind, depending on how much she’s feeling it. Suffice to say, the vocal work on Victim of the Blues is very much the album’s centerpiece, a feature not to be overshadowed by the quality of the material itself or the skilled competence of the players performing it.
As for assessing the sum of its parts, you’ll find that on any given track there’s not much more than a bare minimum of instrumentation: The drumming is first-rate, an exercise in strict tempo that very rarely, if ever, draws attention to itself. The guitars sound hot and ride high in the mix. Any soloing to be found on the album is done so sparingly and seems best suited to fleshing out a line of melody or chasing a turn-around back to tonic. Some sprightly piano playing, accompanied by an occasional, though very tasty Hammond organ, serves to round out the basic ensemble. Still, the overall sound of the album is surprisingly lush, giving credence to the theory that less is oftentimes more.
Whatever amount of high-octane guitar soloing, gussied up slide work or slick production techniques might be absent on the album, Victim of the Blues makes up for with a dedication and spirit that wells from deep in its grooves. That’s an admirable quality to have in the digital age, and one that neither Mother Nature nor Father Time can extinguish.