I Keep It To Myself: The Best of Wilko Johnson, due on February 24, 2017 on the re-activated Chess label, contains 25 tracks recorded between 2008-12 by Wilko along with principal backing from bass player Norman Watt Roy (a member of the Blockheads) and drummer Dylan Howe. The two-disc set is packed with goodies, including re-workings of Dr Feelgood favorites such as “She Does It Right,” “Twenty Yards Behind,” “Sneaking Suspicion” and “Roxette.”
It’s largely rapid-fire, high octane rhythm and blues from Wilko Johnson, best known from his days with Dr Feelgood and the Blockheads but also for his own band the Solid Senders with whom he released a single “Oh Lonesome Me.” Dr Feelgood has that knack of linking rock and roll and punk, and many numbers are riveted into the souls of those growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. So, it is a joy to hear them re-worked and re-recorded here. Wilko, Norman Watt Roy and Howe click in a tangible way and they pick up, drop out and enhance each other’s sections dramatically and with empathy. The guitar riffs are chunky, full on and at full throttle, tempered with some occasional diversion into delicately enhanced solo riffles and tunes – and even a ballad or two.
“Roxette” kicks off the album with repeated, rickety-tickety riffs and steady drums, a bit of mouth organ and the vocals laying out a story of a rather tricky little lady. Lyrics like “I’m gonna get some concrete mix, fill your back door up with bricks” bring a smile, and there is a speedier bit with delicious, full-throttle harmonica. The tracks which follow, “She Does It Right” and “I Keep It to Myself,” are rocky, feel good and perfect formulaic pop/rock. These are followed by the wonderful “Ice on the Motorway,” which is absolutely gorgeous, thunky and deeply textured, the rhythm emphatic and relentless. The light blues motif is repeated time and again, engaging and worked to perfection. “Back In the Night” is very Feelgood-y, and if you miss the growly tones of the late singer Lee Brilleaux from the original version, don’t worry: Wilko Johnson does all right here, and it has a lighter feel than the original arrangement.
“Turned 21,” a ballad (almost) and a lovely interlude, is followed by “Paradise,” which is strong on rhythm with harsh vocals. “Barbed Wire Blues” has a lovely bass, guitar and drum section mid way through and works on the blues riff sweetly. “Dr. Dupree” surprises with a impressive reggae swing, with the vocals strongly supported by bass and percussion with a decent guitar solo before “Sneakin’ Suspicion,” which is the highlight track on the initial disc of I Keep It To Myself: The Best of Wilko Johnson. Strong, clear vocals telling the story of suspicion, fear and the dark side of life’s insecurity. There are stalwart bass and drums underneath, with a bluese-y rhythm taking control. “Living In the Heart of Love” is poppy yet underpinned with that strong guitar rhythm and surprising vocals, so redolent of Wilko. The deliciously desirous “Some Kind of Hero” closes the first disc.
Disc 2 opens with “Twenty Yards Behind,” a classy rhythm and blues enhanced by some dynamic mouth organ. This is followed by “Out In the Traffic,” which traces a similar pattern but with an ever-more-interesting vocal line and intrinsic guitar work underneath. There is a lovely point where the guitar shoots chords and the percussion picks up the rhythm, underlining the gun-shot like effect and this is also used, slower, to finish the track. It’s excellent and clever. “Cairo Blues” starts with thunking, chunky guitar chords before the slightly wobbly vocals enter and the bass supports beautifully in this number. “The Hook” is fast, furious and delivered with a manic, almost worrying sense of rush. “Keep On Loving You” is a lovely interlude, with some great guitar work and stretched out vocals from Wilko Johnson, with a distinct sadness to the atmosphere and there is a lovely, open stringed, guitar solo. “All Fight” follows and is total contrast with heavy, chunky chords and chundering bass lines along with percussion keeping the rhythm completely intact.
“When I’m Gone” contains blues over rock and roll rhythms with a deep, bassy groove established at the offset which underpins the number. There is a lively little discussion between Wilko’s Fender and Norman’s bass whilst those drums of Dylan Howe keep pounding. At one point, everything is taken down so we can really hear the bass, which is rock steady delivered and vital to this track’s effectiveness. Then the guitar leads again and they come together for that trademark slow-down to end the song. This is a wonderful number and there is ample room for the musicians to shine – and they do. “Come Back and Love Me” is different, slow and swingy. It’s one of the tracks on his previous album Back In the Night, issued in 2002, though here delivered just a tad quicker, which suits it better.
“She’s Good Like That” is another characteristically Wilko Johnson number, set off by crunchy guitar chords, and with a rhythm a cross between blues and rock. A great instrumental part in the middle of this number lifts it. “The Beautiful Madrilena” is a short but very sweet story of love with a distinct touch of country about it and “Underneath Orion,” which follows, is rich, blues and multi-layered with some gorgeous harmonized vocals and guitar. The rhythm never lets up, and this is a track which is set apart for its treacle-like delivery – dark, slow pouring and absolutely delicious. The instruments lead very much here and the arrangement is superb. Then we are back to stupendous rhythm and blues with “Down By the Waterside,” which is full of rhythm, interaction between the players and some great vocals. “I Really Love Your Rock And Roll’ finishes I Keep It To Myself: The Best of Wilko Johnson and is classic Wilko, with a strong rhythm and emotive vocals.
In fact, throughout both discs, there is a sense of “Wilko-ness” as he uses the opening lines to set the theme/atmosphere and then takes off at different, ever-more-imaginative angles. Some of the riffs are insanely catchy and if you don’t get it the first time, they are repeated over and over until you do. There is on the one hand a distinction to this music, something which makes it oh-so Wilko Johnson and also there is a cleverness, a play on the oft-used rhythms. Wilko makes full use of the fact he has the back up of some devastatingly good musicians on bass and drums. You might hear the same format over and over, but it feels different each time. The songs have many references to blues and rock and roll stars, and Wilko Johnson sings of most subjects under the sun but there is also a strong sense of the individuality that has made Wilko a prized asset to the U.K. music scene.
The tracks which also appeared on Going Back Home lack the intensity of Roger Daltrey’s vocals but that is fine as it makes them something different – and the music shines more through the lyrics. Wilko’s vocals are intriguing; they can be a tiny bit whiney at times and sharp, but after his single “Lonesome Me” it would be tempting to think Wilko Johnson’s vocals were not his strong point. Here, on many tracks, the vocals are surprising, very strong and pitched just right for the song. Another star to pin on this incredible musician. There are a lot of tracks on I Keep It To Myself: The Best of Wilko Johnson, each worthy of more in depth discussion but there is not the space here. It is good to hear so many re-worked songs: Some of them have appeared on several albums before, but they are not the same in the sense of simply being churned out again. They are tweaked and delivered differently. Wilko’s popularity has increased because of the story of his incredible recovery from life threatening illness, but this was only proved the conduit to more people finding his music – and the music speaks for itself.
The thing with this music is so much is repetitive, variations on the theme and yet, because it is delivered with frenetic energy and perfect note-for-note placement, it works. Wilko and Co. take a theme, and explore it in as many different ways as humanly possible without actually repeating the same song twice under another name (just). Having hit on the winning formula, they work it and work it – and the music makes its way into your brain and is easy, fun, very easy to tap along to and fall in love with. Wilko Johnson has been associated with many musicians and sometimes it has worked, sometimes not, but through it all he has kept his individual style and never lost his feel-good factor. This album is what it is, and it is good.
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