In 2013, a year after the electric album 20 Stones, Dan Patlansky released Wooden Thoughts, an album recorded with an acoustically inclined group. He reprises "Bright Lights Big City" and "Bring The World To Its Knees" from 20 Stones. The rest is previously unreleased material, heavy on covers.
From True Blues onward Patlansky has always leavened his testosterone-fueled, amped up electrical sound with acoustic tracks. Some are country blues, some are "atmospheric" instrumentals. A whole album full of acoustic music is an intriguing prospect from a guy whose fretboard prowess has writ his name large on the South African blues and rock firmament. Also intriguing is the choice to record so many cover versions when Patlansky is quite clearly capable of writing enough original material to fill a CD. Perhaps he wanted to pay homage to a few influences, perhaps he wanted a rest from song writing.
Some of the covers are blues but there are also compositions by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and it seems the song selection is intended as some kind of nostalgic journey to the Sixties or early Seventies folk and slightly off kilter rock that may have more or less direct influences from the blues without being straight blues. Or maybe these are just songs from Patlansky's father's record collection that Patlansky was exposed to during his youth.
As usual the opening track is strong and sets up the anticipation for the rest of the album. "Miss Oowee" has a funky acoustic riff and Wendy Oldfield wails in the background. The lyrics are about a woman running wild. Good fun.
Son House's "Preachin Blues" has been covered by Fleetwood Mac and by Delta Blue, both of whom stick pretty much to the template. Dan Patlansky does an almost acoustic metal version of it, backed by stomping bass and drums. The menace inherent in the song is done justice here by a performance that is both restrained and furious and with some really tasty bottleneck playing.
I am not familiar with the Bob Dylan song (written with one K Secor) "Wagon Wheel," which is a kind of old-timey country folk number with a rollicking, catchy chorus that could come from the weird old America celebrated by Greil Marcus. This is the kind of deceptively simple and tuneful song that emphasises how bad Dan Patlansky is at writing simple, tuneful songs. Patlansky abandons his signature hoarse singing voice for a lighter, airier tone that is affecting and touching. Great performance.
"Bright Lights Big City" was absolutely scandalously mutilated on 20 Stones and for some unfathomable reason Patlansky does another dubious version of the song here. Although this performance is more palatable, it still falls far short of the insouciant groove of Jimmy Reed's original. At least the more laidback singing style is less grating and the acoustic picking is pleasant to listen to. Even so, it is a bit of a downer after the joyous romp of "Wagon Wheel."
"Hallelujah" seems to be one of Leonard Cohen's most popular songs to cover and Dan Patlansky gives us his spiritual prayer take on it and again demonstrates that restraint often works out better than bombast and that where one respects the material and infuses it with emotion, the performance can be a gem. I do not know whether the genre of folk blues gospel exists but if it does, this rake on "Hallelujah" belongs right up there with the best.
Patlansky likes his instrumentals and "KwazI' is another installation in the Patlansky oeuvre of well-arranged, dextrously played, pleasant and anodyne pieces. The song is quiet and even beautiful in places and makes no lasting impact when it passes. Page and Plant's "Kashmir" is an instrumental take too and at least has the recognisable motif and there is plenty of tasty guitar playing and once again one asks the question what the point of this exercise was. It is not a track one would want to play on repeat.
There is a misjudged take on "The Weight" where Patlansky does not seem able to sing the famous tune and produces a version that just drags. This slow, prayerful type of interpretation enhanced "Hallelujah" but here it sucks the guts out of a song that needs to be sung with glee and sly innuendo. This is by far the weakest track on the album. It has no redeeming features.
The quiet, reflective mood is carried through to "Big Things Going Down," an instalment in the age old story of a guy who leaves his home town to make his fortune elsewhere and, if the singing is too low key to give the song depth of emotion, the playing saves the day. Patlansky should perhaps just put away his electric axes and stick to the acoustic ones.
The storming "Bring The World To Its Knees" is the opening cut on 20 Stones and the big riff is easy to replicate on acoustic guitar. The less bombastic singing style serves the song far better and I reckon old Dan has a bit of a classic here, in either version but pretty much nailing it as an acoustic take.
Clint Falconer, who backs Patlansky on bass and guitar, wrote the last song on the record, "Kaynin," yet another mercifully brief, "atmospheric" and pointless instrumental. Surely Falconer could not have spent actual time on writing this type of fluff?
Wooden Thoughts is not without its flaws. The acoustic textures and greater subtlety of the playing and singing makes it a far more palatable proposition than 20 Stones or Real yet the album still carries too much filler. In truth I am not keen on listening to any Patlansky album more times than it takes to write a review of it. It takes only a few spins to extract the meat. Thereafter and with familiarity it just starts to annoy unless it simply disappears in the background because I've tuned out the irritation. There are so many better South African rock or blues albums to listen to, not to mention old school blues albums, that I would not want to waste too much time on the kind of disappointing albums Dan Patlansky puts out.
Patlansky should do more good acoustic songs, and fewer anodyne instrumentals, and work on his singing, and he may yet deliver a masterpiece. Even if he doesn't, I guess I'll still be buying the CDs just to see what he's doing and for my collection. If he released records, though, the grooves on the vinyl would be hardly be in danger of wearing out.