It's a crime that I've been up till now unaware of bluesman John Egan, but I'm hoping to rectify that by taking a deep look into his latest album Amulet. If you ask me, Houston's greatest unsung treasure is the sheer number of folks that we have that can take you out of the blue and into the black with little more than a voice and a guitar. Shellee Coley, Tomas Glass, and of course Jandek to name just a few. Few do it with such mastery of the guitar part as Egan, though.
If you're the type that needs to skip to a track to get to the meat as fast as you can, then definitely the highlight of the record is "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." Of the 11 tracks on Amulet, the old Blind Lemon Jefferson standard is probably the most straightforward blues song. But God in Heaven and all His angels, the production on the song is something from outside the realm of this world.
You can probably guess from the title that it's a death tune, but that's like calling the sun a fire. With a devilish fiddle backing him up, Egan picks his way through a broken life, pulling bits of the Bible from here and there trying to add up some meaning to death itself. I'd compare it to some of those amazing old chain gang tunes like "Ain't No More Cane." That's great blues, right there, when a song doesn't even bother with forgiveness and cuts straight to a minor request about a tomb. Desolate stuff, and unforgettable.
There's up moments, too, though even they still have that somewhat unforgivable quality. "Evil Won't Bring Me Down" will shake the finishing nails right out of your paneling as a never-going-down anthem against evil. It's a little out of place for an otherwise more haunted and sedate collection of tunes, though it's got a nice companion track in "Shake" later on.
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More than anything else, Egan is a master of walking you down a road of lyrics that takes you places you don't expect. He's like Mason Lankford in that regard, but less of a wizard and more of a spirit album. Smack dab in the middle of the album comes "Moment of Grace", and at first I thought it was a maudlin, saccharine thing that didn't dig towards any depth.
"Sometimes you run just to get away?" What kind of stupid line is that? Why the hell else would you run, John? But as you really feel the slow journey towards a much-needed place of peace you start to identify with what's going on in these words. Egan's telling you that you may not really no why you're running, and ends on the hopeful circular line of "Sometimes you run just to blaze a trail."
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Amulet is full of moments like that. It's got some downsides, true. I didn't care for his love songs much because they tried for sweet in the same mode of darker compositions. "Peaceful Mind" is also not a great choice for a closer being really nothing more than a rehash of the earlier sentiments and styles of "Grace" and "Grave." These are just minor hiccups in a spectacular piece of work, though. You're going to want to get this one.
Amulet is out on July 1. John Egan has a release show at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.
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