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JUNE 21, 1999: 

John Lee Hooker, Sittin' Here Thinkin', (32 Blues)

As a rule, hookers have never been known for their reliability or value. But there's one hooker you can always count on to give you your money's worth, and that's blues giant John Lee Hooker. Having entered his sixth decade of recording and performing, Hooker never fails to keep the faith. He's one of a handful of surviving old-timers who never lost sight of what makes the blues unique, and sadly, there will be no one to replace him when he shuffles off this mortal coil.

From his first landmark disc, Boogie Chillen', to his recent collaborations with star-struck celebrities in their own right, Hooker has remained true to himself, and therefore true to the blues. Never flashy and always solid, Hooker endures as an anchor in otherwise troubled waters. Remarkably, Hooker's raw and ragged power continues undimmed by age and untainted by fame and fortune.

Sittin' Here Thinkin' captures Hooker at a particularly fruitful period of his career. Originally released on Muse Records in 1979, the recordings actually date from the late '50s. The identity of the session personnel remains unknown, but there's no mystery about their collective talent. Whoever was playing second guitar, bass, and drums knew what they were doing, and all musical participants follow Hooker closely through his tales of loss and woe. Particular credit should be given to the drummer, who actually propels the music with a rock-solid rhythm instead of overplaying or shoveling the beat like most blues percussionists do today.

There's not a light-hearted song in the even-dozen tracks on Sittin' Here Thinkin', which makes for some pretty dire listening. Hooker may not exactly have a hellhound on his trail here, but he's far removed from a copacetic situation. It's no secret that Hooker's favorite subject matter throughout his storied career hinges around "women, whiskey, and money" (or more accurately, the extremes caused by each or an intertwined combination of the three). Selected song titles will tell you all you need to know: "I Believe I'll Lose My Mind," "My Cryin' Days Are Over," "Sad And Lonesome," "Can't You See What You're Doin' To Me?," and the only cover in the bunch, the bonus track "When My Wife Quit Me."

Hooker's been accused by the unenlightened of being a one-note performer and not a singer at all. But when one knows something well, one should stick to it. With his incessant foot-stomping and plaintive monody, Hooker is an institution unto himself. Like B.B. King, he's one of the few blues icons who's lived long enough to experience wealth and comfort, but he's never forgotten the hardscrabble days of struggling to survive. And while King has become the Caucasian vision of a "safe" blues performer who still has his chops but has lost his edge, Hooker will always be capable of scaring the shit out of the listener with some dark, unrelenting vision.

In the leadoff cut, "I Bought You A Brand New Home," Hooker laments, "I couldn't believe the things I heard," and neither will you. The guitars sting, the bass throbs, the drums kick like an erratic heartbeat, and above it all, Hooker moans like he just lost his last friend and you can't help but believe him. Next to the inimitable Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker's Sittin' Here Thinkin' is post-war blues at its most pungent. -- David D. Duncan


Medeski Martin & Wood, Various Artists, Combustication Remix EP, (Blue Note)

Avant-jazzers Medeski Martin & Wood make fairly weird music to start with, so pushing their stuff through the acid-jazz-meets-trip-hop filter is bound to yield some very interesting results, right?

Well, of course.

On the Combustication Remix EP, six mad sound scientists (including Illy B, aka Billy Martin, drummer for MMW) redistribute and supplement elements of the musical source material like Pablo Picasso rearranged the human form on canvas.

Although there are still those who consider the art of remixing to be illegitimate, many have come to embrace the skill as a means by which to breathe new life into old tracks. The well-conceived remix promotes a sense that the original creative impulse might possibly achieve immortality (as opposed to mummification) by generating an endless series of mutations. Add to that bit of loftiness the fact that good remixes can be as much fun to listen to as they are to make, and it's no wonder that the remixing phenomenon is more rampant than the tribute album itself.

Along with Illy B, the Combustication Remix features studio trickery from DJ Logic (who collaborated with MMW on last year's Combustication), Yuka Honda, Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, Bill Laswell, and Guru (whose "Whatever Happened To Gus" takes the only clunker on Combustication and gives the original's surreal paean to yesteryear jazz culture a needed shot of cred).

You really don't have to dig Medeski Martin & Wood or even jazz to like this EP. If you prefer your hip-hop dosed with a healthy portion of strangeness, try these tracks. -- Stephen Grimstead


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