Little Axe's debut album, The Wolf That House Built, issued in 1994, created the mold for Moby's Play album -- and he knows it. With its blend of deep, slow-grooved beats, loops, sampled voices of blues singers, heavy dub reggae effects, kicking drums, and wailing guitar, it was the roots music precedent to the bald one's fine record by half a decade. Eight years later, Little Axe returns with a new set that will no doubt be compared to Play when in reality it is in a league of its own. The sophomore effort issued by legendary reggae producer and mixmaster Adrian Sherwood, guitarist Skip McDonald, bassist Doug Wimbish, and drummer Keith LeBlanc is a dreamy, hazy cipher of an album that settles slowly and lazily over the listener, displacing his or her sense of time and space in the mix and then turning his or her approach to listening to blues and rhythm inside out. It features the voices of bluesmen telling stories and snippets of singers wafting ghostily out of the ether only to re-enter the mist and wind themselves around a slow, sultry, steamy rhythm, a heavily seductive mix that slithers around McDonald's awesome and understated guitar playing. It comes from the swampy underbelly of the Delta blues bible, and Sherwood's smoky, dubbed-out effects, loops, and echo chambers are everywhere, with sounds that come from out of time yet seem to belong right where they are. The set opens with a read of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground," with his voice coming out of the grave and talking about the blues. On "All Night Party," the late Junior Kimbrough's voice entwines with those of absent friends and collaborators such as historians, preachers, and the players themselves with a shifting, careening mix that turns the blues motif into the fifth element, in the terrain where it encounters the seam of reggae becoming undone. On "Walk Right Shoes," country blues gets the hoodoo treatment, and the refrain of "Riding on the White Horse" is as much a metaphor for heroin as it is for a ride to heaven amid the voices of some well-known blues-rock greats. Overall, the record is spooky, almost mystical; it's a soundtrack for a film that could never be made, so complex is its plot (and blood) line, and is more enjoyable than anything Ry Cooder ever laid down for celluloid. This is music from another world; its roots are swindled, warped, and turned upside down and inside out, but they are never disrespected. The notion of song is ever-present and hypnotic; the continuity and consistency in the mixes from one track to the next are without peer. Hard Grind is the album that should have been the soundtrack for writhing late-night sexual trysts, dark morning soul-searching, long drives into the unknown, and sitting still and staring into the face of oblivion.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek