Until Captain Beefheart’s brilliant Safe as Milk (1967), no one had paid such a respectful and original homage to the great bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, whose names narrowly escaped the contempt and neglect engendered by Jim Crow laws. The Kropotkins may have spent more time on the New York avant-garde scene than in Memphis’ smoky bars, but they all maintain a personal, often passionate tie to the blues and other musical traditions the region directly or indirectly engendered -- jazz and hip-hop, soul and funk; they may not all have been raised in the rural South, the historical birthplace of the genre, but they all are, in a way, children of the blues.
Such is the case for the The Kropotniks' instigator, Dave Soldier, an avant-garde composer and violinist -- also a psychology and neurology professor at Columbia University -- whose string quartet used to perform microtonal arrangements of Muddy Waters’ songs. Similarly rooted is Lorette Velvette (The Hellcats, Alluring Strange, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns) a Memphis singer with an entrancing voice, brought up in the school of blues and rockabilly. And don't forget Samm Bennett (Tom Cora, Elliott Sharp, John Zorn), a subtle drummer fond of free-jazz, who has spent a good deal of time traveling around West-Africa, studying the traditional rhythmic patterns brought by Africans to the New World.
Born from a New York meeting of musicians from various backgrounds, The Kropotkins is a collective with a rotating lineup, a project that materializes from time to time rather than being a "group" in the classic sense. Started in 1992, they have only released two albums since, one in 1996, the other, Five Points Crawl, in 2001. Two records whose grooves offer nuggets of the pleasant smell of the old South, the slowness of farm work, the frenzy of East St. Louis bars, and, above all, the dusty roads and sparkling railroad tracks, the throbbing trucks and rumbling freight trains, the inhospitable road stops and dubious motels; in a word, the immensity of the landscapes, which the band’s most compelling songs drive up and down at turbo speed.
“Cold Wet Steel,” “Shake ‘em on Down” and “Everdream,” opening songs on The Kropotkins’ self-titled album, explode the musical quarries that the band exploits. The first tune is a classic one, an accurate and jubilatory interpretation of the Delta blues' best moments. A simple and efficient bass line, tirelessly repeated, with a rhythmically bouncing banjo and a violin providing the typical instrumental response to the hot and cheeky Lorette Velvette, who casts a spell on her audience from the very first line. Nothing is lacking, save Otha Turner’s fife, which appears on the following song.
“Shake ‘em on Down” marks the next phase of The Kropotkins’ interpretive work; the homage to Mississippi Fred McDowell is obvious, but irreverent. The urgency of the vocals and the guitar slide responses evoke an image of a train flying at top speed, constantly on the verge of derailing. A discomfort accentuated by Jonathan Kane (February, Swans, Rhys Chatham) whose drum shuffle, far from being monotonous, follows the guitar in jolts, introducing a radically different dynamic that truly gives new flavor to the McDowell classic.
“Everdream” is the ultimate step in the transformation that The Kropotkins impose on the old-fashioned arrangement of their idols; hip-hop beats, industrial sounds, and electronic loops compete with the hegemony of the classical banjo, violin, and fife, musically illustrating the nightmarish visions recounted by Lorette Velvette (“Momma gonna milk you/ or kill you dead”). We have come full circle; the traditional sounds now cheerfully collide with the recent ones, proving that the road from Memphis to New York was long, but without too many potholes.
The record drifts from respectful covers to audacious interpretations, from songs that purr like a big engine (“Coal Black Wind”) to bravura pieces that offer the musicians, Mark Feldman (John Zorn, Arcado String Trio, Pharoah Sanders) in particular, a chance to express their virtuosity. But the music is always pretext. Pretext for Lorette Velvette and Samm Bennett, whose vocals, sung with tender or ironic tones, outline scenes from outdated places and times, sketching the timeless failings of their fellow man, taking part in the constitution and perpetuation of a specific idea in the American myth.