Jelly Roll Kings
Off Yonder Wall
Fat Possum 314 534 131-2
How often you gonna hear an album that begins with one group member admonishing another, by name, that his drinking has gotten out of hand? That's just what happens here: "Frank Frost, lay that bottle down," Big Jack Johnson implores on "Frank Frost Blues" -- a plea co-written, by the way, by Frost. "If you don't lay that bottle down/That bottle goin' to lay you down." It's all very matter-of-fact, but Johnson's rattlesnake guitar line on the outro emphasizes that they're talking dangerous stuff here.

That's about as close as Johnson comes to indulging his penchant for topical songs. Most of Off Yonder Wall is a straightforward romp through Mississippi juke-joint blues, modern and otherwise. Guitarist Johnson, harpist/keyboard man Frost and drummer Sam Carr have been playing together, off and on, for some 35 years now, so they know the territory, and they know how to claim it for themselves.

With just a few prickly, carefully enunciated licks, Johnson turns Arthur Crudup's "That's Alright, Mama" into a different song. Where Crudup embraced the kind of machismo men summon up to say they're not hurting when they really are, Johnson conveys unspoken threats -- literally, as the song is an instrumental until the very end, when he tosses off a few of the lyrics almost as an afterthought.

On "Baby Please Don't Go," Johnson's chicken-pickin' guitar takes on vocal qualities that rival his singing voice, while Frost's organ locks the song up in a solid, simple groove. Terry Jackson provides second guitar on "I'm a Big Boy Now," which verges on Howlin' Wolf-style near anarchy (right down to some of Wolf's semi-yodels) to bring John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" into the '90s.

Among the originals, "Fishin' Musician" is nearly as surprising as "Frank Frost Blues," if only because it really is about fishing, while "Fat Back" is an instrumental that lives up to its title.

Johnson plays guitar with country elegance and city bite throughout. Frost provides color and texture, while Carr's claptrap drums hold the beat down unfailingly. There's an offhandedness about how they mesh and flesh these songs out, the offhandedness of musicians so sure of themselves that they have nothing to prove. It's casual, but it's not thrown away. They say their piece; they work it long enough to make sure you've gotten the point; and then they move on.

-- John Morthland

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Boulder, CO, USA.