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Otis Gibbs - Joe Hill's Ashes

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 8 / 6 / 2010

Otis Gibbs - Joe Hill's Ashes
Label: Wanamaker Recording Company
Format: CD


Bleak, but life-affirming and deeply moving latest album from gravel-voiced Indiana-based musician and protest singer, Otis Gibbs

It’s the first hot, sunny day of the year after the worst winter for a decade and I’m looking at the cover of Otis Gibb’s new album, ‘Joe Hill’s Ashes’. It has to be said that it’s a depressing sight. It could almost block out the sun shining through the window. A simple brown cardboard cover with four black panels printed on it, a couple of drawings of male faces and song titles like ‘Where Only the Graves Are Real’, Twelve Men Dead in Sago’ and ‘The Town That Killed Kennedy’ almost had me reaching for the Beach Boys 'Greatest Hits'. This hard winter had depressed me enough already, I wanted some music to embrace and enjoy the sun in I didn’t want to be brought down, not today. But I gave it a try and it’s been a long, long time since an album that is so raw has captivated me in the way that ‘Joe Hill’s Ashes’ has. In spite of wanting waves of warm Californian harmonies to rush over me that day I was met by the sound of a gravel-voiced acoustic guitar playing troubadour who held me spellbound from the very first minute of this album. Firstly despite sounding like he has been gargling with razor blades on a daily basis for a major part of his adult life Gibbs has a much more appealing voice than that of say Tom Waits. Secondly, taking Waits again as an example, the beauty in the melodies that Gibbs writes is instant where it can take time for Waits' melodies to come through. Thirdly it’s obvious from the off that in Gibbs we have an artist that, who despite having a background that most of us have never lived through, we can still relate to. The man is believable. This is real music that will touch and affect you. We’ve all had those times when we hit upon some music or artist that is new to us and which quite simply blows us way and I certainly wasn’t expecting this album to have such an affect on me as it has had. Although this is not the first album that Gibbs has made it is the first I have heard of his work. The second name listed in Gibbs ‘thank you’ list is that of Billy Bragg which made me curious before I listened to this album but now it makes sense. I’m a great fan of Bragg and it appears that that Bragg included a Gibbs song, ‘The People's Day’ in a list he compiled for 'The Wall Street Journal' of ‘The Top Five Songs With Something To say’. The other artists listed were Chuck Berry, the Clash, Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke. Now I’ve yet to hear ‘The People's Day’ but I can understand from the songs featured on ‘Joe Hill’s Ashes’ exactly why Bragg featured an Otis Gibbs track in that list and why he deserves to be in such a list with such artists. The man is some kind of genius it’s as simple as that. This record didn’t depress me as I initially thought it would. It inspired me, it gave me hope that music can still change things; it proved that those with something to say will always find a way and by the second listen it had me singing along to songs like ‘The Ballad of Johnny Crooked Tree’. Unbeknown to me Otis Gibbs has already made quite a name for himself with his previous albums. His last album ‘Grandpa Walked a Picketline’ from 2009 spent over a month in the top 5 of the Americana Radio Chart in the USA and still I missed out on him. He’s been tagged as a protest singer much as Bragg was in his early days but Gibbs is so much more than that. While he is not afraid to speak ( or sing) out about what is wrong with his country there are songs on this album such as ‘When I Was Young’ which is a tender ballad about how he felt safest when he was “in my mother’s arms when I was three years old” and where his gravelled voice is really touching. The other side of Gibbs is neatly shown on tracks like ‘The Town That Killed Kennedy’ where he nearly spits out the lines “No one chooses to ride in a Greyhound/ The only reason you’re here is you’re too broke to fly”. I can’t remember when a collection of songs has moved me this much especially when I expected an album that was going to depress me not inspire me. ‘Joe Hill’s Ashes’ is an absolute classic. I’ve just read somewhere that Gibbs has released at least five albums prior to this one so here’s someone who has some overtime to put in.

Track Listing:-
1 Joe Hill's Ashes
2 Where Only the Graves Are Real
3 When I Was Young
4 Twelve Men Dead In Sago
5 Kansas City
6 Outdated, Frustrated And Blue
7 The Town That Killed Kennedy
8 The Ballad of Johnny Crooked Tree
9 I Walked Out In the River
10 Cross Country
11 My New Mind
12 Something More

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