Album review: POPA CHUBBY – It’s A Mighty Hard Road

Popa Chubby - It's A Mighty Hard Road

Dixie Frog Records [Release date 14.02.20]

Popa Chubby’s ‘It’s A Mighty Hard Road’ is the self proclaimed ‘Beast From The East’s 30th anniversary album. It’s a song driven set encompassing rocking blues shuffles, funky feels and surprisingly soulful moments, all shot through with a big sense of humour and an expressive vocal style that gives even the most mundane song its unmistakable Popa Chubby imprint.

The wide ranging musical journey is neatly summed up by the album’s rocking title track, which has a lo-fi and ‘live in the studio’ feel, with a straight to the vein sing-along hook flanked by sinewy guitar, boogie piano  and some engaging lyrics that tells us like it is: “It don’t matter of your digging a ditch, don’t matter if your born rich, everybody gotta kiss some but some time, It’s a hard road, it’s a mighty hard road.”

Chubby’ unique rock-blues oeuvre moves from irreverent bluster to unexpected tender love songs. But it’s his lack of care that occasionally blemishes an otherwise upbeat effort. A better production could have matched Chubby’s own exuberant vocal style and polished up the sonic detail, particular his down in the mix guitar playing. Then again perhaps the aim of the mix was to highlight the primacy of the songs.

The album also feels couple of songs short of being weighty enough to fit an overall concept, let alone reflect his 30 years in the genre. Songs like the stripped down and slide-led ‘It Ain’t Nothing’, the guitar buyers tale ’Buyer Beware’ and the self aggrandising ‘I’m The Beast From The East’ are OK, but don’t match with his best efforts here.

His best work is to be found on songs like the catchy hook of ‘More Time Making Love’, a soulful groove with a warm close to the mic vocal that matches optimistic lyrics glued together by call and response and bv’s.

Songs like this suggest a warmhearted songwriter beneath a tough exterior, further evidenced by his sweet toned guitar line that again evokes lyrical meaning: “If you worried about the tomorrow, your anxiety is strong, I got something for you, tomorrow never comes, were all living for the moment, you know your smoking hot, so don’t let the devil fool you, into thinking that you’re not, ‘cos the best is yet to come.”

At his best Chubby is an adroit and humorous songwriter who taps into contemporary mores to search for contrasting moments of humour, anger and even reflection.

He’s a larger than life figure – what the French called a personage (hence his success in France) – and both his up-front narratives, delivered with real bluster, passion and total commitment, makes for an honest contemporary blue-collar blues album.

His willingness to explore different genres also keeps the album interesting. He dips into the current fashion for soul on two of his best songs, of which ‘Let Love Free The Day’ shines.

He fills it with late career Beefheart style introspective phrasing, but also emphasizes an uplifting melody with an Ernie Isley style guitar line that sweeps through the track into the fade on arguably one of his career highlights.

‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ almost matches the above, on a surprisingly tender song full of  potent bv’s and boundless optimism:  “If you worried about the tomorrow, your anxiety is strong, I got something for you, tomorrow never comes, were all living for the moment, you know your smoking hot, so don’t let the devil fool you, into thinking that you’re not, ‘cos the best is yet to come.”

He also pays attention to the album’s overall dynamics, establishing as sense of flow through the sequencing and moments of contrast between the aggressive rocking of ‘If You’re Looking For Trouble’ and the very catchy poppy feel of ‘More Time Making Love’.

The former is a hard edged, riff-driven song about karma, on which his guitar occupies a more central part of the mix to create a lyrical mood: “If you’re looking for trouble, trouble gonna come your way.”

His beefier solo soars above the percolating rhythm track to create an aggressive mood before a fade.

Lyrically speaking, the humorous opener ‘The Flavor Is In The Fat’ could be a Rick Estrin song, but musically it feels like Chubby is just limbering up.

He also conjures up an exquisite guitar line on the Latino instrumental ‘Gordito’,  but lacks the killer percussive backing to emulate the feel and mood of his early career instrumental ‘San Catri’.

He’s much better on the fierce ‘Enough is Enough’, which pushes the bass up in the mix on a reggae flavoured song with an electro doctored voice which dials home his lyrical rage.

In sharp contrast, he’s all feel on the subtle late night brush strokes and whispered vocals of the sublime ‘Lost Again’. His evocative lyrics and clipped guitar lines perfectly fit another album highlight that illustrates just what he’s capable of with just a bit more care.

He wraps things off with the tough rocking cover of Leon Russell’s ‘I’d Rather Be Blind’ and Prince’s ‘Kiss’ on which his expressive vocals make makes the much covered Prince song his own. In doing so gives his fans extra value for their dollar on a generous hour’s worth of music.

30 years into his career, Popa Chubby is still finding new ways to fashion his uncompromising rocking blues style.  It’s a Mighty Hard Road’, but somebody’s got to do it. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra  


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