Mojo Juju and the Snake Oil Mer­chants cast a spell

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Steve Ter­rell

Cast­ing a spell

Close your eyes and imag­ine you’re lost on a foggy night on some un­charted back street off the Reeper­bahn in Ham­burg or near the port of Am­s­ter­dam, where the sailors all meet. From some danger­ous lit­tle dive you hear mu­sic: af­ter-hours blues, off-kil­ter torch songs, Gypsy jazz, hot Weimar Repub­lic cabaret, “punk noir,” strange tan­gos, and dark, soul­ful bal­lads. But be­fore you can go in, you wake up.

Don’t worry. You can find that kind of al­lur­ing mu­sic on a new col­lec­tion called An­thol­ogy , by Mojo JuJu and the Snake Oil Mer­chants.

In case you’re not familiar with Mr. and Mrs. JuJu’s baby girl, she’s an Aus­tralian from Mel­bourne who has been a solo act for a few years. But Off La­bel Records, my fa­vorite crazy Ger­man punk/alt-blues/garage/slop coun­try/jug-band record com­pany in re­cent years, com­piled this col­lec­tion of her work with her old band and re­leased it last month to ex­pose this mu­sic to a wider au­di­ence — and, I sup­pose, to show us what we’ve missed.

The mu­sic here falls some­where be­tween that of Cab Cal­loway and Go­gol Bor­dello. I’m also re­minded of the Eastern Euro­pean-in­flu­enced Fire­wa­ter. “Fish­er­man’s Daugh­ter” starts off with a horn sec­tion that sounds like it might have come from a ’90s ska-punk group. And if any­one claims that Tom Waits isn’t a ma­jor in­flu­ence, they’re ei­ther ly­ing or deaf. Try to lis­ten to Mojo’s banjo-led, horn-ac­cented “Sa­cred Heart of Mary” with­out be­ing tempted to sing along in your best phlegm-heavy Waits voice. And else­where, like on “Tran­sient Be­ing,” you might be re­minded of the late Amy Wine­house. That is, if Wine­house had been prone to us­ing ac­cor­dion and trom­bone in her songs. In one in­ter­view, Mojo said she gets her in­spi­ra­tion from “scary an­tique stores.” Sounds rea­son­able.

Some of the best tunes here are the ones that sound like they could have been the­atri­cal pieces. “Scat Song” would have fit in on the sound­track of Board­walk

Em­pire (maybe in a scene set in Chalky White’s night­club). “God and the Devil” is a lit­tle moral­ity drama in which a woman hears a pitch from the Prince of Dark­ness and asks, “Well, I looked that devil right square in the eye and said, ‘Do I look stupid to you?’ ”

One of the dark­est, most strik­ing songs on An­thol­ogy is the near-seven-minute “But I Do.” It’s slow and men­ac­ing. Mojo sings of pain in her heart, the pi­ano plays sin­is­ter lit­tle one-fin­ger trills that sound like Morse code, and the drum­mer seems to be pound­ing to drive away demons.

The song that sounds most au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal here is “My Home,” an in­tense tango in which Mojo sings, “And the color of my skin and the color of my eyes has meant that even in my home­land I have been mis­taken for a stranger in a for­eign coun­try/But it’s my home. This is my home.” She sounds an­gry and proud. It’s pow­er­ful.

Mojo Juju, with­out her Snake Oil Mer­chants, is about to re­lease her lat­est solo al­bum, See­ing Red/

Feel­ing Blue , next month. That should be worth check­ing out. So far, An­thol­ogy is avail­able only as an im­port; Ama­zon UK might be a good place to start look­ing for it.

Also rec­om­mended: ▼ Wor­thy by Bet­tye LaVette. I nor­mally don’t quote James Tay­lor much (if at all), but lis­ten­ing to this al­bum made me flash on an old line by sweet baby James: “A churn­ing urn of burning funk.”

To be sure, it’s slow-burning funk, and one of my few prob­lems with the al­bum is that there should have been a few more faster num­bers. But like LaVette’s best work since the turn of the cen­tury, the soul runs deep. Ev­ery song on this al­bum is a raw emo­tional state­ment — though that’s also true of just about all the songs on just about all of her al­bums.

Quick bi­o­graph­i­cal note: LaVette has been in the mu­sic biz since the 1960s. But as a re­sult of bad breaks, bad busi­ness de­ci­sions, and the fickle na­ture of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, she never quite made it be­yond the sta­tus of cult fa­vorite. That changed around 10 years ago, when she met up with pro­ducer Joe Henry, who helped LaVette make I’ve Got My Own

Hell to Raise , an al­bum that not only was wor­thy (yes, I used that word) of her tal­ents, but also had some com­mer­cial ap­peal, at least for hip adults.

She’s made some fine al­bums since then — one of my fa­vorites is The Scene of the Crime , which Pat­ter­son Hood, of the Drive-By Truck­ers, pro­duced in 2007 and which had a nice rock ’n’ roll edge. When it comes down to it, Henry is a per­fect fit for LaVette. And

Wor­thy is a sweet re­u­nion. The al­bum con­tains a song from each of the cos­mic trinity of 1960s rock: “Un­be­liev­able,” an ob­scu­rity from Bob Dy­lan (from the crit­i­cally dis­dained 1990 al­bum Un­der the Red Sky ); a Bea­tles throw­away, “Wait” (from Rub­ber Soul ); and the Rolling Stones’ “Com­pli­cated,” which was on their un­der­rated al­bum

Be­tween the But­tons . But LaVette isn’t aim­ing for some empty-headed ’60s nos­tal­gia here. Re­mark­ably, she makes you all but for­get the orig­i­nal ver­sions by th­ese ex­alted masters. I didn’t even rec­og­nize “Com­pli­cated” un­til about half­way through. “Un­be­liev­able,” which kicks off the al­bum, is the tough­est and, yes, funki­est thing on the record. And LaVette brings out more emo­tional depth in “Wait” than the Fab Mop­tops ever did.

Other gems on Wor­thy are the slow, bluesy “Just Be­tween You and Me and the Wall You’re a Fool” (writ­ten by James Brown, but not that James Brown); the stunning “Un­damned,” which be­gins, “Some­times the things we be­lieve turn out to be noth­ing but a scam/I’m just try­ing to get my world un­damned”; and “Stop,” a mi­nor-key Joe Henry tune in which LaVette gets de­fi­ant. “Don’t tell me to stop,” she sings. But I don’t know any­one who wants Bet­tye LaVette to stop.

Try to lis­ten to Mojo’s banjo-led, horn-ac­cented “Sa­cred Heart of Mary” with­out be­ing tempted to sing along in your best phlegm-heavy Waits voice. And else­where, like on “Tran­sient Be­ing,” you might be re­minded of the late Amy Wine­house.

Mojo JuJu and the Snake Oil Mer­chants

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