As much as he puts himself down, his work speaks confidently for itself.
Chris Lo 2011-06-17
If you had to write a list of phrases describing Seasick Steve (real name Steve Wold), "self-deprecating" would probably rank pretty high on the list. It's just one of the unusual characteristics attributed to the silver-bearded American bluesman that has had the UK slowly falling in love with him over the five years since his breakout record Dog House Blues of 2006. And how we've fallen for him: his albums consistently perform better on these shores than anywhere else, and 2008 saw him sell out London's illustrious Royal Albert Hall. That's quite a career arc for a man who learned his musical craft while riding the rails and looking for work as a casual labourer in the US.
Wold's wry sense of self-deprecation is literally written all over his latest record. With the album's title, he seems to be acknowledging his own limitations, or at least challenging outside perceptions of his unswerving brand of distorted, down-home blues, usually played on clapped-out, improvised instruments. "Never need to change my style / Been this way for a long, long while / Maybe there's a few things I oughtta fix," he hollers on the title-track. It feels like a declaration of intent, and the rest of the album bears out the threat.
You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks is still recognisably a Seasick Steve album, but it also marks a distinct broadening of the guitarist's style. The album stretches to new band members too, with erstwhile Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones and drummer Dan Magnusson joining Wold on several tracks to provide a punchy rhythm section he has hitherto denied himself. It's an effective partnership; the extra power on Back in the Doghouse pushes the Seasick sound ever further into rock'n'roll crossover territory. Elsewhere, opener Treasures embraces the sombre atmospherics of the great country and folk miserablists, Wold's rumbling sigh – an appealing cross between Johnny Cash and Mark Lanegan – accompanied by violins that wouldn't sound out of place on a Nick Cave/Warren Ellis collaboration. Throughout, Wold seems to be making a concerted effort to find new gears within his rattling crankshaft of a voice.
Old Dog New Tricks is hardly an overhaul – the likes of Don't Know Why She Love Me but She Do ensures there's plenty here for adherents to the tried and true. But it's clear that this old dog is stretching his legs more than on any previous album. As much as Wold might like to put himself down, his work speaks confidently for itself.