Reissues usually fall on mostly deaf ears. That is usually for good reason. However, when one comes along that makes the general passersby sit up and take notice, maybe everyone else should as well. Maybe ‘The Howlin’ Wolf Album’ is special. The cover itself is enough to tell even those not familiar with blues that something different is going on here. The album’s blank white cover states: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.”
This will probably make you think back to last year’s Black Keys’ ‘Brothers’. But there’s a problem here. This album is 42 years old. Controversy has always swarmed around this record like horseflies going in for the kill. In this day and age, it is not unusual to hear musicians jumping genres to try something different. The music industry has grown accustomed to such things as classical Metallica renditions, easy listening turned rap, and enough acoustic sets to make us plead for sweet death. But back in 1969, when everything was still divided and new, making the leap was something special, at best. Incorporating electric instruments and more prevalent harder rock sounds into Howlin’ Wolf’s (real name Chester Burnett) preexisting acoustic pieces proved to be instant magic, and the album is held in such high regard that it’s on virtually every blues and southern rock group’s list of influences, whether they know it or not. The controversy, then? Howlin’ Wolf himself hated it.
It may not be a perfect plan, but it works beautifully on almost all the tracks here. The best hybrid to come out of this blend is the first track, “Spoonful”, which is like a gift basket of Jimi Hendrix and good ol Muddy Waters, with a John Lee Hooker Mama You got a Daughter bow on top. But if you’re looking for a genuine example of a song that isn’t transformed but merely embellished with the newer post-war blues sound, skip on down to “Evil”, where the guitar just lends small touches of funk to an already solid piece that’s up to its eyeballs in fun, the dancing piano tinkling across yet another song about a woman doing a man wrong (can there ever be enough?). The best way to appreciate this album is to sniff out some original versions of these classics, and compare them one on one. But this work has stood the test of time, even if the Wolf wasn’t happy with it.
Controversy behind it, this album is a true gem when it comes to a reissue. This is not a remaster of an album on CD. This is a remaster of the original tapes- that’s right, analog. And this listener would like to think that at least in that respect, Howlin’ Wolf would approve.
Written by Nicole Banister