Markus James has the nerve to slap us upside the skull and tell us it is time to Head for the Hills. His new album is the perfect soundtrack for a high-speed exodus. This entire album has an eerie, otherworldly sound, and after a few spins you will realize what James already knows: the apocalypse is now. Head for the Hills -- which is mighty, mighty fine -- would make a perfect score for an apocalyptic noir-western-thriller (whatever that looks like). If some of these tracks don’t end up in a Scorsese or Tarantino film, or The Walking Dead, I’ll eat the CD jacket, lyric sheet and all. James’ voice and phrasing along with the relentless Hill Country drumming ratchets up the tension on the edgy lyrics. On the title track, he sings, “First one’s free / the last one kills / time to head for the hills.” Populated with pimps, pills, and dealers, James proclaims, “This crazy place giving me the chills.” Load up the shotgun, it’s time to get out of town, and no, we’re not stopping to ask directions. Trust nobody.
The foreboding sense of doom is evident in the lead track “Just Say Yes.” With an obsessive-compulsive guitar jonesing against an amphetamine-laced drumbeat, James’ voice seems to come in through a short-wave underground radio broadcast as he confesses:
Can’t put the bullet back into the gun
Can’t undo it when it’s already done
hard to stop once you’ve begun.
Somebody is definitely getting hurt, stay low.
James, a musical world traveler, has been blending roots blues with West African world blues for years now, and this album seems to bring it all full circle to the North Mississippi Hill Country of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. In fact, Kimbrough’s son Kinney provides drums on four tracks. Recorded in natural environments (a barn, a carport, and a porch, to name a few), and with unusual arrangements, James has crafted an album that is markedly different from the rest of this fall’s blues releases. The rhythms that propel the album keep things rolling along at a steady clip. The resulting feel is like that of a summer blockbuster movie that keeps the audience hanging on for dear life.
Although the album features a number of percussive instruments -- traditional drums to hambone and buckets -- there is no bass player present on any of the tracks. James brings an arsenal of stringed instruments to employ on this album, and the spare-yet-urgent aural palette he creates takes the listener into overdrive. James unleashes his fury on guitar, gourd banjo, three-stringed cigarbox guitar, slide dulcimer, one-string diddley bow, beatbox, and harp.
The imagery evoked by the elastic tension of the strings and the sparse wordplay are all of an end-of the-world fatalistic quality. “Shake” paints a picture of a world tumbling down:
Angels sing, trumpets blow
On “Fallin From The Sky” James warns:
You can have it all
but you might have to feel some pain
see the dreams
fallin from the sky like rain.
On “For Blind Willie,” an instrumental track with a chorus of bullfrogs in the background, the pace slows for two minutes, giving the listener a chance to catch his breath. But don’t be fooled. It’s just a short respite before the next chase scene played out on “Gone Like Tomorrow.” James moans:
Lord see the highway
won’t let me be
see the highway
won’t let me be
Lord coming after me.
Best get right with the Lord if you want to survive this journey, and still be living when the credits roll. I plan on being around for the sequel.