Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Skip James

  • She Lyin' [Genes, 1994] A-
  • The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James [Yazoo, 1994] A
  • Blues from the Delta [Vanguard, 1998] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

She Lyin' [Genes, 1994]
James is in the canon for a few wildly unprecedented guitar and piano solos captured in 1931, his only session until he was yanked from his sickbed by the folk movement 33 years later. Although the two '60s albums he cut for Vanguard were hailed by the country blues claque, they lack the charm and commitment of John Hurt's. This contemporaneous exhumation isn't brilliant either, but it has more life. A detached noninnovator by the time it was recorded, James nevertheless maintained a personal take on an enduring entertainment music, notably in a falsetto that breathed mystery and sexual magnetism. A minor moment in the tangled history of a seminal genre. A-

The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James [Yazoo, 1994]
Never mind Charley Patton, John Hurt, Robert Johnson himself--I long ago concluded that this eccentric misanthrope from the south end of the Delta is the Mississippi bluesman aging blues boys feel deepest, especially on these tracks. Recorded in 1931 in Paramount Records' notoriously lo-fi Wisconsin digs, these 18 legendary tracks include five on a piano equipped with a board over its pedals for extra oomph as well as the James theme song "Devil Got My Woman" and Cream's debut-album highlight "I'm So Glad." Almost 30 when he cut this music, James sounds rougher and more beaten up here than on the two 1966 albums he did for Vanguard, where despite his congenital ill temper and the cancer that was creeping up on him he seems proud to display the vocal and instrumental chops of a guitar-wielding folkie legend who can also play him some piano. But I agree with his cult--the early recordings are more primal and compelling. That said, though, the abrupt, percussive, harmonically disorienting piano does remind me a little of the then 13-year-old Monk. Wonder whether they ever heard each other--might have. A

Blues from the Delta [Vanguard, 1998]
James isn't all he's cracked up to be, especially in the '60s. If the catwalking guitar line of "I'm So Glad" could still give Eric Clapton penis envy, his piano had lost its atonal abandon; if the song he wrote for his D.C. M.D. has God in it, "Careless Love" is barely filler. But always carrying the music is a tenuous falsetto that's been through a lot of bad medicine, a voice that's looked at death from both sides now and done what it could to aestheticize the terror. A-