John Hammond, Jr.

Ready for Love

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Although it kicks off with the first (and only) song John Hammond has ever written, Ready for Love is a worthy and unusually varied follow-up to the surprise success of 2001's Wicked Grin. It would have been easy and possibly expected for Hammond to churn out another album of Tom Waits songs to capitalize on the unanticipated momentum created by Wicked Grin. After all, at age 60, considering he's been chipping away at his craft for the past 40 years, Hammond has certainly earned the right to coast on some better-late-than-never success. And the Waits catalog is bursting with plenty more gems perfect for the singer/guitarist to wrap his throaty, emotional blues voice around. But even though two more Waits songs appear, this is far from either a rehash of Hammond's last disc, or another professionally done but near-carbon-copy set of the sort he's been releasing for the last 20 years. Rather, Hammond pushes his envelope to include classic country, cocktail jazz, and even an obscure Rolling Stones cover. It's hard to say how much influence producer/Los Lobos mainstay David Hidalgo had on selecting these tunes, but since two are rescued from his obscure 1999 Houndog side project, it's likely he was a significant factor. Certainly Hammond's country direction, exemplified by versions of "Color of the Blues" and "Just One More" -- both recorded by George Jones -- and Freddie Hart's "Easy Lovin'," are this disc's most drastic departures in style. But, although they stay faithful to the originals, the tracks fit snugly with the rest of the bluesy fare. Hammond's oozy, swampy take on Willie Dixon's "The Same Thing" is one of the best, most menacing covers of the classic, and a sly, loungy version of Billie Holiday's swinging "Come Love" is one of the collection's playful highlights. "Low Side of the Road," with its clanky, groaning percussion, is straight out of the Waits stylebook, and even the low-key rockin' of the Elvis/Little Richard/Drifters rock & roll oldie "Money Honey" exudes a slightly ominous vibe. "Crown Vic," the sole original, is a John Lee Hooker-variety slow boogie greased with hipster lyrics similar to what Tom Waits -- who also penned the liner notes -- might write. By not taking the easy way out, Ready for Love is a successful experiment that nudges at John Hammond's limitations while satisfying his recently acquired, larger fan base. It's a tricky balancing act, but he pulls it off in typical stylish fashion.

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