I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the new Voo Davis album since I listened to his first one, A Place for Secrets. His initial offering showed a talent that was on the verge of full bloom. The recording was raw, the song writing strong but still somewhat unpolished. It was filled with promises.
Since I first started following Voo he has been spending a lot of time on the road, he has been more focused on his music and as a proud new father, his family. He has managed to juggle his priorities and keep them in balance. Vicious Things is itself a wonder of balance and growth. Everything about Vicious Things showcases Voo mastering his craft, from the polished songwriting down to one of the best blues mixes I have heard. The guitar work is extraordinary, as is the rest of the band. In particular, I found Calvin Conway’s harp playing outstanding, as I would expect from my favorite blues harmonica player.
The sound quality of this record is top notch, something not often found in blues recordings. Voo takes musical equipment and technology seriously. He understands why analog is better than digital, he knows that you can create more emotion and have greater impact by leaving the natural dynamics intact and avoiding the dreaded dynamic compression that crushes the life out of so many recordings these days. He doesn’t need a computer to cover up bad playing.
According to the liner notes, the bulk of the album was recorded in a pair of historic Louisiana studios, using tube amps and vintage analog gear. My main system is a fairly high-end rig that is detailed and revealing to a point that poorly mixed albums are unlistenable, a plague taking over pop and rock recordings. Vicious Things revealed the artful use of equipment long dismissed by less caring artists. It is a rare recording that lets you into the recording environment these days and Vicious Things successfully puts you in the studio with the band. Each artist retains a solid, focused position within the wide soundstage. The only hint of digital edge is a product of the media, the CD itself being the link between today and yesteryear.
Vicious Things opens up with what I have begun to call the “Wall of Voo” sound. After a slow build, “One for the habit, One for the Road,” turns into a runaway train guitar (the wall), punctuated by steam whistle harmonica blasts. The driving rhythm carries you directly to a glass of your favorite hard beverage, a theme that continues throughout the album.
Whispers picks right up again and takes us on a ride through the dark history of blues. Something I sense Voo finds sacred. He has taken blues history and added something new to it, something his own. “119 Presidents St.” is the address of the 119 Underground blues club in Jackson Mississippi. I have never been there but I am betting this instrumental gives a damn good idea of what it feels like to sit at the bar and watch the stage. “Phantom Woman” is the most surprising song on the album to me. Voo has shown a softer, more emotional ability previously, but this song shows a mastery of more than an idea. Each note is carefully placed, the layers of piano, guitar, and drum melded in perfect harmony. This is a songwriters song, it is the becoming of an artist.
“Big Life” flows smoothly; the go lucky guitar rhythm carries you along this tale of bad luck, perfectly matching the lyrics – “Everything’s good until you look inside”. Each song on Vicious Things belongs there, it is an album, a single complete work, a story told to various blues rhythms. I can almost hear the side A lead out after “Waitin’ on That Day.”
Vicious Things is the tale of the long journey between playing at being a bluesman and actually making the sacrifice required to be great without dealing at the crossroad. At its core, it takes us through the struggles of getting from A Place for Secrets to Vicious Things. This is what I see and hear when I listen. It is the road I like to imagine Voo walked to create an album that is as forward thinking as it is wrapped in the classic technology it embraces.
Voo Davis has established himself with Vicious Things and his future as a musician is now on much firmer ground and not just as a bluesman. I could go on and on about Vicious Things, it just hits me in the right place. I appreciate the care Voo took in recording this album, but right now, all I want to do is put the top down and crank “One for the habit, One for the Road” while I blast down a central Texas country road at a very unsafe velocity.