Eden Brent and Paul Oscher: Two Performers’ Distinctive Expression of the Blues

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 02.01.11 in Spotlights

Before moving into 2011, I wanted to address a pair of albums that I couldn’t work into any columns late last year, when they were actually released. On the surface, relative newcomer Eden Brent’s Ain’t Got No Troubles and veteran Paul Oscher’s Bet on the Blues couldn’t be more different: Oscher is the down-home blues purist, while Brent blends and weaves the form into music that is bluesy, but not necessarily blues. But both are essentially solo performers who know exactly what they’re doing with their music, and bring distinctive expression to their versions of the blues. In today’s scene, it’s hard to go wrong with either.

Brent first emerged from the Delta backroads with 2008′s Mississippi Number One, her second album (and first for Yellow Dog). She is a rock-solid boogie-woogie pianist who served a long apprenticeship under homeboy Boogaloo Ames; her voice is both scrappy and raspy, and she sings with the sad sway and knowing tone of classic blueswomen like Bessie Smith and Ida Cox. But despite gems ranging from the slapstick (“Fried Chicken”) to the sublime (“Close the Door”), and despite Brent’s obviously formidable talents, that album didn’t quite gel as a whole. Its diversity wound up working against her to a degree.

But Ain’t Got No Troubles is acutely focused from beginning to end. This could be in part to the laissez-faire production and cutting arrangements of Canadian guitar hero Colin Linden – or perhaps the fact that the album was recorded in New Orleans in one 12-hour session, with onetime Meter George Porter Jr. on bass and a carnivalesque brass section on some tracks. Certainly the whole album feels like New Orleans, which gives it an irresistible unity. It also helps that eight of the 12 songs are Eden originals, as opposed to five of 16 on Mississippi (plus three more by her mom). Mainly, though, it’s that there’s no hesitation in Eden’s urgent voice or her intricate but seemingly casual piano; this is the work of a still-maturing artist.

Brent’s greatest skill is her ability to put the confessional spirit of the singer-songwriter into the context of blues without any of the wallowing repetition or monochromatic sound that often plague folk-based troubadours. Brent’s album is simultaneously personal and universal, and she uses blues as the backbone to bind together all kinds of music. Opener “Someone to Love” is a jaunty New Orleans R&B strut with world-weary lyrics; it’s followed by the title song, which opens with a complicated right-hand piano intro and gradually evolves into a gospel feel. “Blues All Over” is hard blues with deep-blue lyrics that are ultimately cathartic, while “Let’s Boogie Woogie” cuts loose from the get-go. Linden’s “Later Than You Think” has an organic, jazzy feel; Brent’s “My Man” sounds like a boogie pianist backed by a jazzy jug-band. Her “If I Can’t” has a similar, almost Lovin ‘Spoonful feel despite the rather desperate lyrics. “Leave Me Alone” is a soul ballad that’s transformed when Linden’s stunning slide blows through, and “In Love with Your Wallet” is a sassy rocker. For all that, there’s never a moment when this could be mistaken for anything but an Eden Brent album, so powerful is her presence; it’s amazing, what she can squeeze out of the blues form.

Paul Oscher is a different story. When he took the harmonica position in Muddy Waters‘s band from 1967-72, he became the first white boy to play with a major black blues band. Oscher was 18 years old when he started with Muddy. From there, he fronted his own bands for several years, dropped out of music entirely for most of the ’80s, but returned in 1992. At first, he worked with a band again; now, he plays solo most of the time. I suspect that’s because, as he delves deeper and deeper into the classic Chicago sound – the barebones sound that predates full bands like Muddy’s – he’s at a loss for musicians who can capture that just-behind-the-beat groove, and he’s not about to play with any who can’t. He’s learned enough additional instruments that he manages to keep things varied, and he’s imaginative and confident enough with his hipster voice to keep from embarrassing himself the way many similar singers do. There’s just one track that features more than bass and drums – and there the only addition is piano. But with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith locked in on that trash-can drum sound, Oscher gets what he’s looking for. The fact that these tracks are all rough mixes certainly helps; it’s been a long time since a digital recording sounded this analog.

He plays harmonica with such a deep, robust tone that he can sound like a whole horn section. At other times, as on “Mean Ole World,” he sounds like a single voice crying out from the depths of a deep, dark hole. He gets off some nasty electric guitar on “Robin Lee” and follows that with the shimmer and scream of “Slideaway” (which is the Freddie King showcase “Hideaway,” played on slide guitar). There’s some sweet sounding gospel, and more Chicago nastiness on the likes of “What Have I Done” and “Juke.” He does his mentor Muddy proud on a menacing “Rock Me,” then manages to sound emphatic on “Sad Sad Day” without hardly raising his voice. And he brings a whole new, but already archaic-seeming, sound to the blues when he plays Thelonius Monk‘s “Round Midnight” on his bass harp, a harmonica that looks so big you could pitch a tent on it. Oscher has no interest in crossing over, no desire to extend the blues with progressive arrangements and the like. He wants only to uphold the traditions of the music he has spent a lifetime pursuing. On that account, he succeeds like nobody else.