Mac Arnold does indeed have “Nothing To Prove.” He spent time in Muddy Waters’ band and has backed the likes of John Lee Hooker and B. B. King, among others , so his credentials are impeccable. But as a journeyman bassist, it’s taken the enthusiastic endorsement of Plate Full O’ Blues to arrange for a long-overdue debut as leader.
Enthusiasm, however, doesn’t always translate to musical success. And while “Nothing To Prove” has its moments, it’s ultimately a bit of a mismatch.
Things start well enough with the opener, “Blues For You.” Kicking off with snarling guitar, rubbery bass, and hard-driving drums, it’s a bit of a lyrical throwaway – it would work fine in a live setting but doesn’t stand up to repeated listens – but is performed competently, with a tight, shuffling groove. The title track repeats the pattern – wailing guitar, busy harmonica, with the bass and drums high in the mix for an in-your-face sound. Here, too, the band manages to match Arnold ’s gruff vocals with a slightly slick but otherwise enjoyable arrangement.
“Call Mac Arnold” trades twelve-bar convention for slippery funk. With it’s autobiographical lyrics, it’s doubtful anyone’s likely to cover this one; just as well, as few would be able to negotiate its oddly metered lyrics that, somehow, Mac makes work. (If nothing else, however, it shows that blustery braggadocio isn’t the exclusive province of rappers - it’s been an integral part of blues tradition all along). Much the same attitude informs “Ghetto Blue,” a funky recitation of Mac’s life experiences, again with somewhat strained lyrics and chunky wah-wah guitar that gives a decidedly urban impression.
So far so good. But things start to go downhill from here. “Going Back Home” drags, with a lugubrious rhythm that robs the song of the joyous anticipation it cries out for. “The Truth” returns to funk territory, with the band providing a foundation that aims for slick but comes off as ponderous, and the slow blues of “She’s So Mean To Me” is simply pedestrian, the backing failing to do justice to Arnold’s anguished vocals. By now it’s apparent the better cuts are stacked at the beginning of the disc, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Plate Full O’ Blues is a reasonably talented but unquestionably amateur ensemble.
Production, too, presents problems. Max Hightower plays some nice harmonica, but it’s often so high in the mix it becomes intrusive, particularly the incessant swelling and fading throughout “She’s So Mean To Me.” The lines themselves are nice enough, but a subtler approach would support the song better. And there are too many moments where, despite obvious enthusiasm, the band simply stumbles, loosing their grip on the groove to a degree hard to overlook.
Recording is a relatively simple and inexpensive proposition these days, and no doubt many a bar band would be pleased to produce a CD of this quality. But Arnold is old-school, and in addition to the rather incongruous match between down-home vocals and uptown backing, the truth is, he deserves better (and more appropriate) backing than to front an amateur outfit’s vanity project.
Here’s hoping we’ll hear more of Mac, and a little less of Plate Full O’ Blues, next time out …