Album of the Week: Already Free, The Derek Trucks Band

It’s hard to make a good blues album. As a genre it tends to stultify into endless twelve bar progressions and guitar solos, and as much as I like those two things, I don’t necessarily want to listen to 40 minutes of it. And God knows it can be tempting to indulge in endless guitar solos, especially when you’re as talented as Derek Trucks is.

So the reason why Already Free is so remarkable is that it manages to sidestep these problems and exist as a varied, nuanced album that is still unmistakably a blues album and still contains plenty of tasty guitar.

“Down in The Flood” asserts immediately that you’re listening to a roots album—the song is initially just guitar, some foot stomping, and a bit of light electric piano that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Keb Mo album. But when the full band comes in at 1:12, the river lurches over its banks and the song becomes a lot heavier. It’s a cohesive full-band sound, rather than lots of guitar up front and a simple drumbeat. That’s another of the album’s secrets–Truck’s virtuosity doesn’t dominate the record, and the emphasis is always “Derek Trucks Band” not “Derek Truck’s Band.”

“Sweet Inspiration” has a great compressed clean guitar tone on the intro with gospel-tinged three part harmonies. The song owes more to Muscle Shoals and Motown than to Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, but as they do on other tracks, Mike Mattison’s gravelly vocals and Trucks’ slide keep the song firmly grounded in the blues tradition.

Speaking of blues, “Don’t Miss Me” and “Get What You Deserve” are pretty straight-ahead numbers, which coming as they do midway through the album, re-centers the record, even if they’re occasionally hampered by silly lyrics—see the line “Baby I’ve got a toothpick in the bottom of my walkin’ shoe,” a ham-fisted attempt to recast the blues concept of walking shoes.

“Get What You Deserve” cooks along on a Howlin’ Wolf meets Elmore James vibe, and is certainly one of the top three songs on the album. Considering its close proximity to the aforementioned “toothpick” line, it’s odd that “Get What You Deserve” contains some of my favorite lyrics on the album: “I don’t need no doctor, I don’t need no truth/Goin’ to California, honey I’m bulletproof/Just a strange believer, riding on the word.” Great imagery.

If there’s one area where Already Free doesn’t quite escape the black hole of blues clichés, it’s the lyrics. Lines like the “toothpick” fall flat, as does the forced grammatical inaccuracy of “These Days Is Almost Gone.” I cringe every time I hear Mattison sing it—“these days are almost gone” is not only more grammatical, but also neatly avoids the unpleasant “z” sound that a sustained “is” produces. Although Mattison and Trucks, who co-wrote most of the songs, are trying their best, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the strongest collection of lyrics on the record is the Dylan-penned “Down In The Flood.”

An additional area of inconsistency is with guest vocalists. Mike Mattison is such a sympathetic and expressive vocalist that I can’t imagine feeling the need to give the microphone to anyone else, and Doyle Bramhall II’s guest vocals on “Our Love” and “Maybe This Time,” just don’t connect in the same way that Mattison’s do. On these songs, the band sounds like it’s playing a store-brand version of genuine Derek Trucks Band tunes. But the other guest vocal—Susan Tedeschi on “Back Where I Started”—is a knockout performance, delivered with a vaguely torch-singer vibe that Mattison can’t summon.

But the closing track, also called “Already Free,” erases these quibbles. Like “The Lengths” on Rubber Factory, it works so well because it’s a radical departure from other songs on the album, cutting a particularly nice contrast with the raga-soul mash-up of “I Know.” “Already Free” is just two guitars, a shaker egg, and Mattison’s vocal, a simple arrangement that evokes the album’s opening foot stomps. This is the way to end an album.