Sky Road Songs, Elliott Sharp’s latest record by his outfit Terraplane, is outwardly blues, but there’s enough eccentric, wild stuff going on to make me wonder if blues as rendered here is merely a delivery system for a freak show. Then, I go back and listen to Sharp’s work with his Carbon trio/orchestra, his Soldier String Quartet and all his solo work. Terraplane begins to sound a bit pedestrian.
Not too much so, though. The blues vehicle Sharp launched in 1991 — and named for Robert Johnson’s 1936 single “Terraplane Blues” — is his outlet for one of his main musical loves. As one of the leaders in New York’s experimental music scene in the late 70s and through the 80s, and one whose indulged in modern classical, jazz, no wave rock, funk, noise and techno, you’d hardly expect him to embrace such a relatively simple music form. Sharp, as he does with everything else, makes the blues his own, and lives by his own credo: “keep one foot in the past and one foot in the future which puts your ass right in the now.”
Sky Road Songs has its ass firmly planted in the now, all right, mixing acoustic country blues with the electric urban blues and some whack jazz, funk and techno sprinkled throughout, usually when you least expect it.
Sharp wastes no time applying some of his endless supply of inventiveness to the old art form. On the short instrumentals “Outward” (at the beginning) and “Inward” (near the end), he turns the almost forgotten big brother to the mandolin, the mandocello, into a deadly instrument of the blues, applying a slide technique that sounds like a deeper, sinister National Steel. And just to make it more eerie, some odd, buzzy electronics are thrown in.
But even Sharp knows that blues is often best conveyed with some poetry bemoaning some sad state of affairs, and for that he uses both a female (Tracie Morris) and male (Eric Mingus) vocalist. Mingus, the son of the late jazz heavy Charles Mingus, can bellow authoritatively with the soul-trembling intensity of Howlin’ Wolf whether it be the funky stomp of “Down On The Block,” or the acoustic Delta new original “Off My Mind”, accompanied by only Curtis Fowlkes’ trombone and Sharp’s mandolin, mandocello and bass drum. On the dark, slightly twisted jazz ballad “Sky Road Song,” he shows off his crooner side as Sharp lets loose note-bending, slashing lines.
Morris’ sassy, jazzy voice can signal danger like Mingus, but she can also bring out the avant-garde in Sharp’s music, too. Two of the most whack songs, “I Blame You” and “The Common Extreme” are ones she fronts. The former feature ghostly vocals referencing “cable TV,” sharp edits and hip-hop beats married to the unmistakable Delta blues of Sharp’s slide. The latter is even more unhinged, it’s not even blues but rather, reggae tinged avant funk rock. The trippy chorus is like an entirely ‘nother song spliced in. Even on a more straightforward blues rock song such as “Endless Path,” an avant garde flavor prevails with sudden rhythmic shifts and blotches of electro noises as Morris applies a sort of jazz vocal take on the blues.
The record’s producer, Joe Mardin (yet another legend’s son, this time, the spawn of renowned producer Arif Mardin), contributes and sings the chugging, menacing “Banking Blues,” the perfect mope for this post-financial meltdown world. Sharp keeps the strong vibe going with an unrelenting, urgent guitar attack. “Banking Blues” is reprised at the end of the album, this time with a more conventional rhythm and Mingus at the mike.
Since we’re on the subject of legends, well, Sky Road Songs boasts a guest spot by one. Sharp first met blues guitar giant Hubert Sumlin back in 1983 and the two have played together on and off over the years, with Terraplane backing up Sumlin in ’94 and Sumlin sitting in with the band occasionally on stage or in the studio. Sumlin came by for the recording sessions for this album and dubbed in his guitar for one track, “This House For Sale,” which turned out to be his last recording date before his death about three months later. While Mingus belts out the tune, Sumlin and Sharp are soloing at the same time from beginning to the end of the song. As Sharp weeps on electric slide guitar, Sumlin’s salty sweet notes come out as naturally at the end of his life as they did when he was cutting those Chess sides with Howlin’ Wolf in the 50s and 60s.
Sky Road Songs, therefore, is one of those rare blues records that doesn’t feel restricted by the blues to stay within some strict parameters in order to retain the blues feel. The thing that holds the record together through this is Sharp’s own angular guitar that also manages to stay faithful to the blues. This isn’t the wildest music he’s put out by a long shot, but Sky Road Songs is a wild ride. Those who believe that the blues needs a swift kick in the ass needs to listen to Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane kick ass.