Corey Harris

Downhome Sophisticate

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Few artists reflect the breadth of black music as vividly as Corey Harris, who performs at the peak of his strength throughout Downhome Sophisticate. The overall feel is rural, with plenty of slide guitar slithering over raw, live rhythms. The hooks have a timeless feel, as on "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," with its rootsy gospel vocal motif and an implied handclap beat over a "My Sharona" hook. But Harris nods as well toward acoustic folk-blues, softened and broadened on the solo track "Capitaine" by an almost John Redbourne feel (which owes a lot in itself to Son House). Instrumental tracks evoke images nearly as clearly as those with words; the jump boogie bounce of "BB" paints a picture of a Southern roadhouse on a Saturday night. But when Harris adds lyrics they enhance this eloquence, as on "Fire," whose references to Babylon, bloodshed, and perditional flames project an ominous, apocalyptic power. It's an easy leap for Harris from folklore to urgent urban settings; his depiction of a police car as a fearsome, prowling Biblical beast makes "Santoro" especially disturbing. The fact that Harris also borrows from Mexican and Latino traditions, especially on "Sista Rose" and the sensuous "Black Maria," makes the point that African-American culture, the center of Western pop, abuts multiple styles and is able to draw from each with equal ease. In the end, the title says it all: This is music both primitive and elusive, easy to absorb and more difficult to play than it seems.

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