The packaging of Chains & Black Exhaust reveals absolutely
nothing of its contents. The name Chicago appears twice once
on the cover (a photograph of a seedy nightclub emblazoned with "Home
of the Chicago Thunder Birds M.C.") and once on the back ("Demons
Chicago" providing parentheticals to a pitchfork-wielding eggplant,
as far as I can tell, anyway). Despite the apparent endorsement of
the Windy City, this compilation of 45s (deduced from the inner
sleeve, which pictures five of them) sounds like pure Memphis, as
tight, simple rhythms propel sweaty soul cuts through bar after bar
of pained howls.
The platter's only two flaws are also selling points. First,
absolutely no information is given about these 18 tracks. Song titles
are not listed, nor are the artists. While this adds an intriguing
sense of mystery, it's also damn near criminal. The folks at Jones
compile all of these excellent, long-lost funk and soul singles and
then tell the buyer jackshit about them?!?
Flaw two: The sound quality is, at times, atrocious. The dirt and
grime that coat these recordings do lend another layer of
timelessness, but tracks fade in and out and tape hiss is all too
prevalent. It's rarely distracting, but still, would a little
mastering work be too much to ask?
But now to justify the gaudy rating: Nearly every song sounds like
Jimi Hendrix fronting Booker T. & the MG's. The beats are jumpy,
popping loudly with each snare crack, the low end restrained (but
with at least one mind-bending fret-walk per cut, just so you know
the bassist's a player) and the guitarists leaning heavily on the wah
pedal, giving the six strings a fuzzy, acidic aftertaste.
Track 2: A swinging riff is countered with a piano lick that sounds
like something from a Charlie Brown (both the blues artist and the
Peanut) special. DJ Shadow wishes his compositions could sound this
Track 3: Not Sly Stone, but this would feel at home on There's a
Riot Goin' On. The vocals recall Chess blues, but some busy
drumming supplies a subtle funk influence.
Track 5: Aside from a great, formless guitar solo, this one is
dominated by a striking e-string bend ("waoooooooo" would be the best
way to describe it) that opens each measure.
Track 7: The vocal track sounds like early '60s Stax, but the
instrumental part could appear on a Bootsy Collins solo album. It's
got everything at once: an extremely ambitious bass line, backing
female vox, tight horn flourishes and a shrieking, off-kilter guitar
Track 8: A blend of Sly and George Clinton with a tint of country.
The hook is the lyric "Life is a gamble," screamed by a woman, then
sung by a man in a comically deep voice and finally answered by a
Track 9: The disc's best cut, by far. Very reminiscent of material
off the Nuggets garage-rock box sets, the chorus is
spectacular, stuttering through a rising melody before giving way to
yet another fuzzy guitar solo. An amazing song with a ridiculously
Track 12: It opens with raucous shouts and heavily distorted guitars
(the Ramones?), and then comes the funk, as a sneering riff pushes
through while shouts of "Get high" echo repeatedly. Minimal and
Track 13: "The devil made me do it," goes the chorus, and thank God
he did, as this one's a definite keeper.
As good as these are, every cut is just as great. For DJs, this
compilation is the wettest of dreams each riff, beat and tone
ripe for pillaging. An essential collection, a true treasure. Only
those two aforementioned flaws keep the score from being a perfect
10, which the songs richly deserve. It's not a brand new bag, as
Chains & Black Exhaust's godfather James Brown would say, but
it's a vital one.