Arkansas is one of the last imaginary places in our monoculture, for few of us -- save the unlucky supplicant visiting Bentonville -- have much reason actually to visit there. Jim Mize, a fiftysomething Farm Bureau claims agent, lives in Little Rock. Hillstomp, who are somewhat younger and come from the fecund woods of Portland, Oregon, live there in their imagination.
Mize's day job takes him along the trailing edge of disaster, and his songs are filled with the hotel hall verite of Mary Gauthier and Nashville's all but forgotten outre poet, Tom House. Blue Mountain covered Mize's "Let's Go Running" on Dog Days, and played behind him on his 2001 debut No Tell Motel. In the meantime, Mize has played guitar with bluesmen such as Cedell Davis, lived, and written.
He sings with a regal bray, somewhere between John Cale and Bob Seeger, luxuriating over carefully drafted words: "Early fishin'/Late night musician/Zydeco is what she wants," Mize sings on "Acadian Lullaby", though the song is played with the worn joy of a veteran bar band accustomed to solitude.
Only it's not a bar band, it's an aggregation of some of Little Rock's finest. Everything from distant echoes of the region's most recent feral blues tradition to knowing guitar lines that nod toward Sonic Youth settles behind Mize's careful, boiled hard words. And it all sounds very much like Arkansas, like nowhere else. And like someone who should be heard.
The Portland duo Hillstomp, like Mize's Ohio labelmates the Black Keys, come to the blues from almost as much distance as did the British circa 1962. They have seized upon R.L. Burnside as a benchmark, which is perhaps the equivalent of a young poet worshiping Thomas Hardy: an approachable goal. That leads, on their third album (recorded live), to covers of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bukka White, to their own songs written in that general tradition, and to a closing traditional, "Stewball", learned from the Tarbox Ramblers.
Hillstomp are far enough away from the originals not to pretend to any kind of authenticity. They know enough to play, and not to think. Their originals are almost undistinguishable from the covers, and the audience is quite clearly (though well in the background of the recording) having a blazing good time. All of which comes across nicely, despite the middling fidelity of the album.