Album review: WILKO JOHNSON – The Best Of Wilko Johnson

The Best Of Wilko Johnson

Cadiz Records – [Release Date 14.04.14 ]

And suddenly everything is Wilko, from Julian Temple’s documentary film and a live DVD and doc, to an autobiography, several high profile ‘farewell’ shows and now this definitive double album. Truth be told, it’s not quite ‘The Best Of’, as the title suggests, but it’s a decent, well presented snap shot of his post Feelgood career.

Liner notes scribe Charles Shaar Murray’s points to such omissions as ‘Bottle Up & Go’ and ‘Don’t Let Your Daddy Know’, while there surely should have been room for the Mick Green co-write ‘Going Back Home’, and ‘Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’.

The irony of course is that it takes the adverse circumstances of Wilko’s apparent terminal cancer to kick start a 25 strong compilation such as this.

The inclusion of a handful of Feelgood classics gives the rest of the music its context, but the emphasis is on Wilko’s solo career.  There’s obvious added poignancy to the line ‘Bet your gonna miss me when I’m gone’, from ‘When I’m Gone’, which also serves as a splendid example of his less is more approach.Norman’s bass playing and Wilko’s use of subtle dynamics give an otherwise mundane outing its edge.

Wilko was never the greatest singer,  but his unmistakeable motorvatin’ rhythms and  simultaneous rhythm and lead guitar made up for that, while his drone like vocals on ‘Paradise’ –  a  moving ode to his late wife – is the perfect balance of raw emotion and kick ass rhythms, propelled by the metronomic bass player Norman Watt Roy. It’s all there in that one song, the sparse arrangement, the subtle dynamics and the heartfelt lyrics of rhythm and blues from the heart.

There’s a similar balance to the set as a whole, from the opening tremulous voice and surprisingly mixed back guitar of ‘Some Kind Of Hero’ and  Wilko’s exposed wail on ‘Keep On Loving You’, to the demo feel of the 1980 ‘Ice On The Motorway’ (the album of which contributes 5 tracks here). The shrill tension of his vocal on ‘She’s Good Like That’ is counter balanced by big hitters like ‘Sneaking Suspicion’.

CD 2 ebbs and flows, being kicked started by the relentless rhythm of ‘Barbed Wire Blues’, which in turn provides 4 tracks to this compilation.  There’s the snap of ‘Roxette’, the Bo Diddley beat of ‘Down By The Waterside’, the sultry pulse of ‘Dr. Dupree’,  the curious echo laden vocal of ‘Living In The Heart of Love’ and the swampy ‘I Keep It To Myself’, suggesting that even Wilko was looking for a slightly different take on things.

The 25 tracks are shot through with his essential relentless rhythm, always building and resolving a tension in the way that Mick Green taught him. Jeremy Tremaine adds some dirt sounding harp on ‘Twenty Yards Behind’, again suggesting they were looking for another layer of sound, but ‘She Does It Right’’, best encapsulates Wilko’s cutting edge r&b, as his raspy voice and razor sharp licks cut through a peerless rhythm track as only Wilko can.

You may argue about the album title, but there’s no denying the man’s unique take on r&b, which stands as a sharp and jagged counterpoint to the bastardized musical term that dominates contemporary music.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

David Randall plays a selection of new and classic rock in his weekly show first broadcast 14 June 2020 including reference to the Feature series “2020 Vision”.

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