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Monday, November 20, 2017 
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Chains & Black Exhaust
Jones
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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.

Some highlights:

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 seamless.

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 solo.

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 co-ed choir.

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 catchy groove.

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 slinky.

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.


by Yancey Strickler




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