Mose Allison is possibly best known these days through his association with Van Morrison, who released Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison in 1996. Morrison probably gave Allison’s career a late boost, presenting him as a somewhat kindred spirit, albeit having a few more years on him, and hopefully a more benign presence than Van the Man, if even harder to classify.
I had always filed Allison under jazz, though blues was probably closer to his idiom, yet here we have If You’re Going to the City: A Tribute to Mose Allison, which sees him being covered by a slew of largely rock music gentry from the past few decades. Listening to this selection, it becomes easier to see that blues is at least the template to Allison’s songs. Not necessarily a version familiar to the backstreet bars of Chicago, this is a more polished version of the blues, with echoes of both supper club and Tin Pan Alley – though in Allison’s hands and voice, they sound perhaps a shade less archaic. These are fine songs and, if these covers succeed in pointing attention back to the originals, then at least part of the work of this collection has been done.
Allison died three years ago, at the age of 89, after a recording career stretching between 1957 and 2009, with over 30 albums in his name, mainly for big name jazz labels Prestige, Atlantic, and Blue Note. His daughter Amy, herself a singer and performer, put this project together (along with producer Don Heffington) to catch the legacy of her father by bringing together a selection of those current artists who acknowledge his influence.
On the surface, the roster appears a little chaotic, mixing Iggy Pop with Richard Thompson, Frank Black with Taj Mahal, but there is some sense of cohesiveness that belies that initial sense of questioning. Indeed, it is Taj Mahal that opens proceedings. Politically, you would think this a master stroke – Mahal has become the card holding credential holder for the black music of the Americas, and thus, well placed to place Allison’s stake into the claim of being a bona fide blues musician. Sadly, the song “Your Mind is on Vacation” sounds as if Mahal’s spirit was likewise, a cabaret tinkle enlivened only by the piano.
The mood is thankfully then heightened, with Robbie Fulks applying a welcome bluegrass hillbilly jazz injection, complete with some imagined, if off-putting, brain noises at the opening. Keeping up the mood next is a most un-Jackson Jackson Browne, with a simple yet spritely Laurel Canyon 12-bar canter, resplendent with a glorious Hammond solo. I wish he showed this lighter side more often.
Fiona Apple is an artist I had thought a jill of all styles: sadly, amusing songs in a jazz-lite idiom seem not to be her forte, but “Your Molecular Structure” is short. It is present, I guess, as a necessary pointer to this aspect of Allison’s oeuvre, the “clever/witty” song, better in his own voice and presence.
Back on safer ground, and a highlight of the record, is the now-established duo of Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite. “Nightclub” oozes the atmosphere of a such an establishment, still serving way after hours, with Musselwhite’s harmonica and vocals, the latter shared with Harper, driving a lazy languor that makes you wish you there.
Chrissie Hynde is clearly still on jazz duties, her take here could have easily been an outtake on her recent Valve Bone Woe, where it would have been one of the better tracks. Electronic bass then introduces the unmistakeable tones of Iggy Pop for the the title track, with an extraordinary trumpet motif kicking in alongside him. With WTF my initial thought, a delicious loopiness then filters through. Love it. As the lyrics instruct, “Don’t mess around with dope.” Indeed.
Bonnie Raitt, much as Taj Mahal, is top-drawer bait for the casual potential buyer. Recorded in a live setting, she seems, strangely enough, to be on autopilot. OK, Bonnie Raitt autopilot is no small beer, but I wonder if a studio format may have offered a greater gravitas.
Loudon Wainwright III, as ever, demonstrates his worth in a straight setting. Why has he never done a covers album? He certainly has the voice and guitar chops to carry it off, just him and his guitar. His old buddy Richard Thompson follows with “Parchman Farm,” performed, like Raitt’s selection, in a live setting. Given that Thompson’s calling cards are his guitar playing and his marmite vocals, this offers neither, a waste of Allison’s possibly best known song. And a waste of Thompson. Seeing as he too has a sideline in “clever/witty” songs, perhaps he would have been better served playing with one of these.
The sense of cramming in the names continues, with the usually reliable Peter Case offering a perfunctory bash that will neither attract new fans to him or to Allison. Blues needs a greater swagger, something that I am pleased to say Dave and Phil Alvin have in spades. In a slightly tidier mode than their work as the Blasters, nonetheless they clearly know their way around this territory, bringing a restrained rumbustiousness to “Wild Man on the Loose.”
Anything Mose is the name of an Allison tribute show put together by Richard Julian and John Chin, they contributing a slo-mo version of “The Way of the World.” I thought it was Elvis Costello, channelling his jazz nadir, pleased only to discover that it wasn’t. I am sure in the context of a show it might be a bit livelier.
So did you know the Pixies’ “Allison” on Bossanova was about Mose? Me neither, but the inclusion here of Frank Black is almost worth an extra star alone. Singing in a key that hints at Canned Heat’s Al “Blind Owl” Jackson, “Numbers on Paper” is a delight that warrants replaying immediately. Maybe in preference to City‘s last track, in which Elvis Costello does make an appearance after all. “Monsters of the Id” is a duet in cahoots with Allison’s daughter Amy, with whom E.C. has worked before. I had read she has an unusual timbre in her voice and was thus not disappointed or unduly distressed. Except by the lackluster endpoint the song gives to the collection, a fizzle rather than anything else. Perhaps “Id” would have worked better as an opener, with Iggy or Frank or the Harper/Musselwhite collaborative making for a wow finish.
You could say a tribute album is only as good as the songs, but I think that not always true. A good song can be spoilt by the wrong performer, a lesser one lifted by the right one. The issue is in the choice and the matching. Allison has written better songs than some included on City, and performed some of those here better himself. But some of the artists here have added the best of themselves to the material, coming up with a sum greater than the two parts. As ever with a tribute record, some haven’t. Still, on the bright side, If You’re Going to the City is largely good and, with the royalties going toward the musicians health support charity Sweet Relief, it’s an investment I can recommend.
If You’re Going to The City Tracklist:
1. Taj Mahal – Your Mind Is On Vacation
2. Robbie Fulks – My Brain
3. Jackson Browne – If You Live
4. The Tippo Allstars featuring Fiona Apple – Your Molecular Structure
5. Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – Nightclub
6. Chrissie Hynde – Stop This World
7. Iggy Pop – If You’re Going to the City
8. Bonnie Raitt – Everybody’s Crying Mercy
9. Loudon Wainwright III – Ever Since the World Ended
10. Richard Thompson – Parchman Farm
11. Peter Case – I Don’t Worry About A Thing
12. Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin – Wild Man On the Loose
13. Anything Mose! – The Way of the World
14. Frank Black – Numbers On Paper
15. Amy Allison with Elvis Costello – Monsters of the Id