Jeff Norwood tends to embrace traditional Mississippi Delta and Southern/Piedmont styles of blues over anything modern and overtly rock 'n' roll. The Camden-based singer/guitarist breaks new ground on this new solo album, however. Far from being a prim-and-polite set of clean ditties and renditions, Push Pilin' is rough around the edges in a really cool way.
"A push pile is a big old pile of dirt and stumps out in the woods," Norwood announces with a sneer and a growl over a dirty guitar riff and straight-beat rhythm during the intro to the lead-off track. "Now, push pilin' is what you call when you go out there late at night and grow something that might not be legal so a country boy who ain't got no farm no more can get by."
Engineer/guitarist James "Jimbo" Mathus, of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Knockdown South fame, produced the 11-song collection at his Delta Recording Services studio in Mississippi. It's a roomy facility loaded with vintage and antiquated gear. Mathus laid down most of the drum tracks, plus a few little guitar solos and backing vocals. Justin Showah supplied the electric and upright bass.
Some of Norwood's new songs are tight and simple with sparse arrangements, but some tracks here sound like a loose jam session captured accidentally from a couple of expensive overhead mics. Obviously, he and Mathus aimed for a raw production quality and a fun, low-key performance.
In the first moments of the shouty and nasty "God Damn South Carolina," the listener catches Norwood mention to Mathus, "This is rough as sandpaper, but it's what it is," to which Mathus responds from the control booth, "That's fine — that's what we like."
On the slow-burning "Invisible Man," a slinky number in 6/8 time with a familiar riff, Norwood warns his baby, "You won't see me anymore/when I'm gone, yes I'm gone." The more spaced-out and chiming "Hard to Love" resembles the atmospheric jangle of an old Crazy Horse or Giant Sand album.
The hard-rockin' juke-joint slide blues tunes — like the acoustic guitar-based "Hard Time Hustle" and the woeful closing track "One Drink" — better demonstrate his edgy chops and gritty wit. Musically, these pull from a deeper sense of Mississippi Delta roots blues. Lyrically, they're as pained and emotional as anything he's put forth before. The most upbeat song of the set is "King of the Jungle," a foot-tapping rocker in half-time with Norwood boasting about being the top beast of his scene and more than a few peppery licks and solos.
Swampy, sure-handed, and laden with hot slide guitar, Norwood's latest achieves its goal. (jeffnorwoodblues.com)
Jeff Norwood performs at the Surf Bar on Fri. March 4.