I Be Trying
(Single Lock Records)
4 out of 5 stars
Today’s deep blues players, especially those who emerge from a family heritage in the genre, are stuck with a tricky balancing act; how to keep up the heart of the gruff, often prickly and edgy music they were brought up on, while appealing to a contemporary audience. Cedric Burnside navigates that especially well on the plucky I Be Trying, his first release in three years.
Burnside, the grandchild of famed North Mississippi blues legend R.L. Burnside, learned his craft at the feet of some of the most iconic musicians of the rural South. He has been recording albums for over a decade, mostly sticking close to the hard-hitting, hardscrabble, mosquito infested Hill Country blues his grandfather and friends like Junior Kimbrough worked in. That hasn’t made him a star, yet it has dismissed accusations of selling out. Burnside pushes and expands those boundaries just enough to perhaps make this often ominous, swampy, riff based backwoods attack more palatable to a larger audience.
The thirteen tunes remain stripped down with Cedric on guitar and drums, and just another drummer on the majority of the tracks. No bass (well, only on one track), no keyboards, nothing fancy; just the stark unvarnished intensity of two instruments and Burnside’s emotional unfiltered vocals. The opening unaccompanied acoustic guitar and vocal of “The World Can Be So Cold” lays down a line in the sand. Producer Boo Mitchell (Robert Cray, Valerie June, many others generally in the roots field) keeps the sparse instrumentation sounding so full, it seems there are more players than just the two responsible for most of this music.
But it’s in the song writing that Burnside has noticeably grown. He adheres to the back country blueprint of latching onto a guitar riff and repeating it for the length of the tune. Yet, he’s also refining that scruffy approach with songs incorporating more melodic sections and chord changes. On “Love Is the Key” he dances around the chugging beat typical of this music, including a sing-along chorus in the titular words and plays a lovely, low boil solo. The closing “Love You Forever” even finds Burnside shifting into an occasional Prince-like falsetto and adding a moaning cello to bring a fuller sound in addition to the guitar/drums guts.
Longtime friend Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars, adds nervous, even twisted slide to “Keep on Pushing,” letting Burnside handle both guitar and his own overdubbed drums. He gets somewhat soulful on the cautionary “Gotta Look Out” singing, Some people/they yo friends/But they want to use you/So be careful who you talk to as the beat leans towards pulsating funk.
Burnside rounds out the frisky, frothy collection with covers from his granddad and Kimbrough. While this is far from anything that may land on commercial radio, there are just enough compositional moments on Burnside’s finest set to push it a little closer to widespread acceptance while maintaining the tough, raw foundation of the uncompromising music that came before.
And… you can dance to it.