Popa Chubby – Universal Breakdown Blues (2013)

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A fiery aggression surrounds Universal Breakdown Blues, as Popa Chubby doesn’t lament the dangerous and uncertain era in which we live so much as rail against it with all of his might. Populated with grippingly personal tales, and some of his most bold and dexterous guitar playing to date, this album is one part emotional release, one part confrontational triumph — and completely cathartic.

“I Don’t Want Nobody” gets things underway with a chugging riff that would bring a twinkle to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s eye, before Popa Chubby lets loose an extended solo exploration — as furiously inventive as it as, well, furious. He then adds a snarling lyric about walking off from bad love. It’s the first, but in no way the last, of the scorching rebukes on Universal Breakdown Blues, which confronts problems both worldly and personal with a hard-eyed sensibility.

The title track simmers and then shouts, before its eventually engulfed in a plume of psychedelic wah-wah guitar. “Danger Man” takes a match to the familiar braggadocio of soul men like Otis Redding. Meanwhile, his instrumental take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” leaves aside the dreamy reminiscence associated with that standard in order to explore a darker reality — one filled with regret and no small amount of anger. Even the more straight-forward “Peoples Blues,” after retelling a familiar cuckold’s tale, becomes a launching pad for a scorching series of runs by Chubby, who unleashes a torrent of sound that could bring down buildings.

Not that everything on Universal Breakdown Blues, issued this week by the Mascot Label Group’s Provogue Records, rattles along with such visceral loudness. The anthematic “I Ain’t Giving Up,” though just as determined, allows Popa Chubby an opportunity to explore a gospel-inflected soulfulness. “69 Dollars” and “The Finger Bangin’ Boogie” are engaging R&B-flecked groovers, while “Rock Me Baby” and “I Need a Lil’ Mojo” reanimate Chess Records’ mid-century urbanity. He even adds a floorboard-rattling, pot-smoking party tune in “Goin’ Back to Amsterdam.”

But the essential theme of Universal Breakdown Blues — which draws to a close amid volcanic clusters of notes on “Mindbender” — is one of hard times, and the hard choices that have to be made to get through them. Let’s face it: Most days, there’s a lot to be pissed about. Popa Chubby gives voice to those very real emotions.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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