Well, that certainly took the serrated edge off Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Imagine an episode where you are Doctor Who. You’ve landed the Tardis nearby a juke joint, deep in 1920s Mississippi. A bunch of wild railroad convicts won’t let you out unless your assistant plays them some songs. Trouble is, your assistant is Siouxsie Sioux. You pray to the timelords of Gallifrey she won’t corrupt continuity, by introducing punk fifty years too early. Just when you think she might have found middle-ground, Ravi Shanker drops in to join the jam!
The score could be provided by Italian multi-instrumentalist and soloist Elli De Mon, who’s forthcoming album, out 18th June, Countin the Blues is packaged like a delta blues album of yore; sepia photo of Elli, guitar between legs, and graphics to match. It weighs in well with sound too, a twangy guitar opening, but it jerks between tradition and modern. Reimaging ten female vocalist, vintage blues rarities from the 1920s, Countin the Blues varies between adhering to the original, or converting it into kick-ass contemporary punk. This works, exceptionally well under the skilled labour of Elli, primarily because those songs are as raw and filthy as punk could be or has ever been.
This album should put Elli de Mon on the UK map, as she’s been thrilling blues audiences across Europe with this unique take on the blues for best part of decade. A prolific one-woman-band, releasing six albums since 2014, she breezes through vox, rezophonic and lapsteel guitars, organ, drums, dilruba, and even an outplaced sitar, on this magnificent album.
Primordial blues being a major influence, during pregnancy Elli penned, Countin’ The Blues: Indomitable Women, a book about the women blues artists of the twenties. Published in 2020, it must’ve been a natural progression for her to decide to record the songs she wrote of, in tribute to these great women. It’s a win-win for documentation of songs which has been forgotten by most. The only tune I’d heard of was Memphis Minni’s When The Levee Breaks, as many would know it from the Led Zeppelin adaptation.
Kicking in, as I said, twangy guitar introduces us, but seconds later Elli’s version Ma Rainey’s Prove It On Me Blues electrifies. One could shrug at this conjunction, pop-punk has the T-shirt on this, if Alanis Morissette coined it, Sheryl Crow and Shania Twain commercialised it. Yet there’s a definite rawness here, a dusky garage punk nod. This notion drags you in, darkened by the second track, Bessie Smith’s Blue Spirit Blues; eloquently macabre, and the theme continues for a further two tunes until Lucille Bogan’s Shave ‘Em Dry pounces on you like a seventies punk anthem.
Proving drugs and music went hand-in-hand since day dot, the overlooked iconoclast Victoria Spivey recorded Dope Head Blues in 1928, yet Elli implements a beatnik lysergic aura to it, by adding a sitar; hence the Ravi Shanker connection mentioned in my Doctor Who visualisation!
Just when you consider reeling in your assistant Siouxsie Sioux, with your extended scarf (because Dr Who will eternally be Tom Baker in any of my imaginary scenarios) dragging her to the crossroads in hope the devil, or Davros even, is up for purchasing a soul, we’re back on the agenda, less Sgt Pepper, and more traditioned twangy acoustic guitar blues is aired now more than previous songs.
With the sublime acoustics of Elizabeth Cotten’s Freight Train, it feels as if Elli figured it had all gone too far the other way, and returned her salutes the queens of the blues by traditional method. This acoustic trend continues for four amazing tunes, ingulfing the aforementioned When The Levee Breaks. In my scenario Doctor Who would be effectively saved, these last few tunes would adhere to the angry railroad convicts’ expectations. But just as you assume the cliché happy ending is near, there’s a vinyl only bonus track, Geeshie Wiley’s Last Kind Words Blues, which slivers back into psychedelia sitar, and the Doctor is doomed, to be continued next week!
This album is a treasure, if not for the tremendous tributes to historical blues standards, or the adaptions of unearthed rarities returned to modern times through punk rock, but for the overwhelming effort of this Italian multi-skilled virtuoso who accompanied herself on nearly every instrument, and arranged the whole album in a new key, to align to her personal punkish style.
And Elli, if you read this, I wonder, and I’d imagine you do too, what the mother of the blues, Ma Rainey and the other subjects you’ve so wonderfully recaptured here would think of it all? It may well take some time for them to get their head around music’s progression, but I’m certain you should be proud as they’d nod their approval.