Sugar Brown Poor Lazarus

By Matt MacDonald
January 2016

Sugar Brown

Poor Lazarus (2015)

Sugar Brown (SBCD/002)

This second release from singer/guitarist Sugar Brown (AKA Ken Kawashima, PhD) is made up of seven originals (one an instrumental collaboration with harp player Bharath Rajakumar), five covers, and a two part adaptation of the Lewis Carroll poem, “The Mad Gardener’s Song.”

Recorded in mono with almost no overdubbing, it’s abundantly clear from the opening salvo of Frankie Lee Sims’ “Walkin’ With Frankie” that Brown is going hard for that retro sound so popular on blues albums today. From a technical standpoint, it’s primitive, as if it might have been done at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service between Howlin’ Wolf sessions. Brown’s voice helps to get this wild and raw vibe across, too. It’s unpolished and doesn’t have much range, but it brings a conviction and an intensity that still manages to sound unforced.

This is what makes Poor Lazarus so appealing. That retro sound, the smorgasbord of sampled classic blues riffs, the lifted-directly-from-Little-Walter harmonica, and multiple blues styles are often the ingredients of a museum piece album. And with a lot of other singers, that’s likely what would have happened with this one.

But from his delivery to his cover choices, Brown’s individuality is strong enough to make it all fly. His approach, for the most part, works: from the North Mississippi sound on Tom Waits’ “Get Behind The Mule” to the Louisiana Swamp sound of North Mississippian R. L. Burnside’s “Goin’ Down South”, to the Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf rhythm lines on “The Mad Gardener’s Song: Parts 1 & 2”, to the frenzied desperation of the title track. It all fits together naturally as the album winds its course.

That’s not to say that there are no missteps. His originals are uneven. “Burn It Down,” a Jimmy Reed structured tune about getting high, is OK because Brown is coming through. “Meet Me In The Country”, however, starts stepping into that largely avoided museum niche, and “Train Sixty-Four” goes rollin’ on down that ole Blues Cliché Line.

These are counterbalanced by the CD’s most perplexing offering.

“What A Comrade Left Behind” is, at the same time, the best thing on Poor Lazarus - and its biggest mistake. Listening to it for the first time, I didn’t pay much attention to it. Then I read the lyrics and discovered a beautiful meditation on loss and the feeling of being lost. It has many of the qualities of the most famous Delta blues – power, introspection, insightful observation, an elevation of ordinary things to poetry – but all of that literally gets lost in the fast tempo shuffle. Later, Brown sings the theme from the movie Tokyo Nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter). I have no idea what it’s about – it’s in Japanese – but I know how it immediately made me feel and I can’t help trying to lay its melody and mood onto “Comrade”.

Despite these shortcomings, this quirky album is compelling. What at first, may sound like a bunch of different things is really only one: Sugar Brown… coming at you hard and fast.

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