Sam Morrow: Concrete And Mud (Forty Below Records)
Reviewed by Bill Tokash
During the interview after Dale Watson’s performance to close out the 39th season of Austin City Limits, he cited a John Lennon quote about how an artist’s originality comes from their inability to emulate their influences. When I heard that line from Dale, it quickly sunk in that no other statement about artists and their influences could better capture the true spirit of why artists make the music they do. Every single musician that first picks up as guitar or a microphone, or sits down at a Hammond organ or a pedal steel guitar to try to play starts out trying to play songs they love. And then they go on from there once they start to write their own songs and develop their own style.
Artists like the Beatles stripped away the genius of their influences (Carl Perkins) to create a sound that was palatable pop for the masses. But the kind of artistic creativity that I look for mixes the ingredients of an artist’s influences into a new recipe. On Concrete and Mud, Sam Morrow’s third album on Forty Below Records, the 27-year old Texas-by-way-of Los Angeles artist kicks out a delicious bouillabaisse of an album: a hook-drenched gem that is equal parts of Texas country, funk, and soul, with a little bluesy southern rock mixed in.
Based on the album cover and the sound, its clear that Sam’s a Waylon guy, and Sam’s soul-drenched baritone twang across the entire album is one of its highlights. But the other influence ingredients that I am tasting are a large dash of Little Feat mixed with several heaping tablespoons of Tony Joe White. When you say that all out loud, it sure sounds like one hell of a tasty dish.
The first track, Heartbreak Man, explodes with a killer guitar riff that blends with a hooky Hammond organ fill that sets the tone for the whole album. The second track, Paid by the Mile, lays out the Waylon swing early on, then closes with a nice little extended jam. On QuickFix, the first single from the album, a full slab of meaty, slow-cooked Lowell George funk gets served, and by now, four songs in, I am hollerin’ for more sauce and napkins. Other highlights for me included San Fernando Sunshine, a slow drawl of a ballad that has Sam’s soulful vocals on full display, Cigarettes, which serves up a swampy guitar riff and second helping of Little Feat-esque funk, and The Weight of a Stone, which starts out soulfully, but then slides into a smooth, rolling ballad.
On Skinny Elvis fellow labelmate Jaime Wyatt joins Sam on a duet that positions the lyric in the chorus (that’s skinny Elvis/all day on) as a potential new jargon-y term of respect and approval. The album closes out with Mississippi River, which is more of straight up acoustic song with a sincere chorus and more lyrics depth (independent thinkers/whiskey drinkers/all just links in the chain). There isn’t a single filler song on this album, and its clearly already on my short list of potential best albums of 2018. I hope Sam can get himself off the Left Coast and to the Midwest this year so we can check him out live in Chicago here.