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Friday, 31 August 2012

The Blind Boys of Alabama - Spirit of the Century (2001)

Regular readers will no doubt be aware that I live with visual impairment, and so you’d think that the Blind Men of Alabama would provide the perfect opportunity to talk a bit more about my experiences with the disability. Instead, I’m going to talk about one of the greatest TV shows ever made: The Wire.

The Wire ruined TV for me. Before watching The Wire I’d happily watch reality shows, soap operas and quiz shows without a second thought. Today, I hardly watch TV at all; there are so many poorly-made, badly-written, superficial shows that I don’t tend to waste my time. The Wire has turned me into a bit of a TV snob: it’s not that I care what anyone else watches, I just hate watching crap.

The Wire is a detective drama set in Baltimore, and weaves together a number of interlinking stories that highlight the corruption that exists in public life and on the streets. In simple terms, each series revolves around a major investigation which somehow involves wire-taps. As well as the usual motifs of police drama, The Wire strives to tell the story from all angles: the police, the drug dealers, the media, and the schools, to name a few.

For those who haven’t seen The Wire, I should warn you that it is not an easy show to watch: the storylines are sweeping in their scale and cutting in their social commentary; the characters are complex; there is a lot of ambiguity - you find yourself sympathising with the drug dealers; and it makes no concessions to the casual viewer. Indeed, each series has a different focus and a different key cast of characters who sometimes appear again, and sometimes not. Detective Jimmy McNulty, who is positioned as the main focal character in the first series, is sidelined in the second series. Nick Sobotka, a central character in the second series is never seen again. D'Angelo Barksdale, a mid-level drug dealer who has reservations about “the game”, is ultimately murdered and made to look like he’d done a Michael Hutchins because he’d turned his back on his crew. Perhaps most impressive is that the character you end up rooting for the most is Omar: an open homosexual who robs drug dealers. These are bold statements from its network and writers, especially when we consider that TV networks are ostensibly driven by the need for ratings and advertising revenue.

I realise that The Wire isn’t for everyone, and if you think that Deborah Morgan’s character in Dexter is complex and subtle, that The Shield is a carefully observed portrayal of law enforcement, or that the dialogue in Eastenders really captures what it’s like in East London, then The Wire probably isn’t for you.

When I watch TV now, I can’t help but compare it to The Wire - and when I do I usually end up turning the TV off. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some excellent dramas released in the past few years: Red Riding was astonishing; Mad Men was brilliant; Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica were very good; and I’m currently working my way through Breaking Bad. Is it so wrong of me to want something that’s good?

On the opening credits to The Wire, the song ‘Way Down in the Hole’ is performed, in each series by a different artist. In the first series it was the Blind Boys of Alabama who provided a version of the song, and I just had to buy the album.

Album-opener ‘Jesus Gonna Be Here’, a Tom Waits cover, is an awesome piece of music: deep bluesy vocals, dirty double-bass hooks and harmonica riffs that Howlin’ Wolf would die for. ‘No More’ is a little more gospel in feel, with slide-guitar and a male gospel chorus. This track feels a little cheesy at points; this probably has something to do with the constant presence of a slide guitar and a sound that Primal Scream tried to emulate on their album Give Out but Don’t Give Up. Next up is a great rendition of ‘Run on for a Long Time’ – Johnny Cash has done the best version of this track, but the Blind Men of Alabama add in a nice little bass-groove and a funky drumbeat that could make even the most tone deaf tap their feet and nod along. ‘Give a Man a Home’, a Ben Harper cover, is my least favourite track on the album: it reminds me of every country-tinged Americana ballad you’ve ever heard, the sound of which has been parodied numerous times on South Park. ‘Way Down in the Hole’, another Tom Waits cover, is just a brilliant piece of jazz-inspired blues. I love this track: the guitar is sparse and deceptively simple; the bass is infectious; the vocals are fantastic; and, more than anything else, it reminds me of how good The Wire is.

It’s crazy to think that the Blind Boys of Alabama have been performing together since 1939, and when they stick to stripped-down songs, their music is faultless. When they strive for a bigger sound as in tracks like ‘Give a Man a Home’ and ‘Motherless Child’ it doesn’t work. The album has a lot of great tracks, and though I’m sure I’ll be reaching for the ‘next track’ button a couple of times, it’s definitely a keeper.

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Anonymous said...

Agreed, the Wire is an amazing show. Did you ever see The Corner? It has a lot of the cast members from the Wire.

JC said...

Yeah, I saw the Corner, a very good show, if a little stark. Some quite depressing stuff in that...

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