As an observer, I have reviewed many different kinds of art, from theatre to ballet, from film to painting to music. Music is the hardest form I have tackled by far. The writer has to give the reader some impression of what he has heard through description and comparison. The attempt inevitably falls short of hearing the song. The best you can do is to create the desire in the reader to listen to it, if, in fact, you think it is worth their while.
These musings are a disclaimer/prelude to a review of John Campbelljohn’s new album, Nerves of Steel. As I listened, I thought about the extremely subjective nature of my judgments. Two years ago, I heard Campbelljohn for the first time at Bunkers. He played a solo acoustic set, and I felt I had never heard anyone play slide with such feeling and virtuosity. Newly inspired, I went to look for one of his albums, choosing at random How Does It Feel. I put it on as soon as I got in the truck. I hated it. I was surprised that my feelings could go so far one way, and then so far the other. Perplexed, I needed more information. So I went to see him play with his band at Daniel’s last fall. The show was a good time and everyone seemed to really enjoy the music. I loved the electric slide solos, but wasn’t much into the less blues oriented numbers. What I really wanted to hear, was John play slide by himself.
I present you with these ramblings because of a heightened awareness that my tastes, with respect to blues, are not necessarily a reflection of what the majority of people would think of this album. I can however, after telling you a bit about where I’m coming from, tell you what I liked.
“No Philosopher” is one of the best examples of Campbelljohn’s songwriting I have heard. Although he is an international artist, this tune is firmly rooted in good old Cape Breton, an undulating bass line underscoring these soon to be classic lines: “Well I ain’t no philosopher / But there’s something I’ve gotta say / I feel so alone / When I cross my old causeway / when you colour in your colouring book / and you colour across the line / will it hurt your celtic colours / if I paint them blue sometime?” There are some good lines in “I’d Rather be Rich Than Famous” as well, a song that focuses on a central theme of being able to cash your cheque at the liquor store as a sign of financial success. Heads up NSLC, his cheque is good, give John his beer next time.
“Put Your Breaks On” taps into the fine blues tradition of the sustained sexual metaphor. No, Hot Rodder Magazine readers, it’s not really about cars. This song is also one of the album’s best examples of Campbelljohn’s delta slide stylings. That being said, the album faded for me near the middle. I don’t like slow shuffles all that much, so “Do Unto Me” didn’t do anything unto me. “Nerves of Steel” seems a strange choice for a title track, the reggae only becoming tolerable to my ears once John starts playing slide. I like reggae Marley style and Slowco style, but this stuff doesn’t do it for me.
“Honey I’ve Had My Fill”, however, is Campbelljohn at his best, the dirty old blues. With a staccato rythym, this song does the digging into real human relations that blues is capable of when it is honest. “Punching Bag” is successful along these same lines, Campbelljohn gravels up his voice for a tune that reminds me a bit of the Allman Brothers early work. There are some tracks on this album I will listen to many times; there are some I will probably never listen to again. The slide-based delta style songs are very good; the crafted works of a master bluesman. The others, in my opinion, may be different, in your opinion. – Mark Anderson