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Tony Joe White: Smoke from the Chimney

Throughout the course of his seemingly improbable, lengthy career as a recording artist, Tony Joe White refused to be pigeonholed. This aversion to aural predictability made him an increasingly tough sell to record labels as they moved out of the more idealistic days of the late-‘60s and early ‘70s and into a far more commercially-minded era. White established himself as the king of “swamp rock,” a catchall term for rock ‘n’ roll, country and R&B. But if you couldn’t be easily summed up in tight marketing copy, you were effectively cast off into the wilderness to fend for yourself. Which is exactly what White saw fit to do after his time on Monument and Warner Bros.; he bounced around a laundry list of those labels willing to take a chance on his musical idiosyncrasies, until he died in 2018. Released posthumously by Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label, Smoke from the Chimney features a collection of previously unheard guitar-and-vocal demos fleshed out by Auerbach’s reliable stable of session players. Given Auerbach’s penchant for retro-stylings, this retrofit album works out fairly well, all parties involved clearly enamored of White’s aesthetic and doing their best to co-opt the swamp rock sound and feel to imbue the record with a sense of authenticity.

The title track is a slow-burning soulful number which, like the bulk of the album, is immensely benefited by the additional instrumentation and thoughtful arrangements. It largely sets the tone for what is to come, the instrumentalists taking a fairly prominent role helping to fully flesh out what would otherwise be little more than demos. Indeed, White’s writing has always been fairly singular, but his voice in later years was but a shadow of what it once was. And here, it’s definitely wanting in the face of the more muscular arrangements, often sounding as though it were literally pasted atop a more organic jam.

“Boot Money” in particular feels like Auerbach took a snippet of one of White’s lyrical ideas and added the requisite swamp rock trappings top make a much more complete idea. This is by no means a knock on Auerbach and his charges, as they’ve clearly done their homework in putting together sympathetic arrangements based on White’s often difficult to pin down musical personae.

Meanwhile, “Del Rio, You’re Making Me Cry” rides along on a nice Latin-country groove that features some truly fine playing. Unfortunately, White’s voice throughout, and especially here, sounds like the tape has been slowed, lending the performance a woozy effect. But thankfully the musicians brought in to finish what White started are more than sympathetic enough players to be able to read between the lines of the demos and breathe life into otherwise fairly listless performances.

The acoustic Delta blues intro to “Scary Stories” is one of the few tracks to truly benefit from White’s diminished vocal capacity, his hollow tonality making the lyrics and delivery all the more unsettling. Like the bulk of the album, it’s immensely aided by the more than competent playing, particularly as the band embarks on a slow build into full-blown electric blues territory. In lesser hands, the bulk of Smoke from the Chimney would feel like a sad attempt to cash in on a legacy of a legendary musician. Instead, there’s enough meat added to the bones of what White left behind to make it a compelling listen.

Summary
This retrofit album works out fairly well, all parties involved clearly enamored of White’s aesthetic and doing their best to co-opt the swamp rock sound and feel to imbue the record with a sense of authenticity.
68 %
More smoke than fire

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