With the passage of years, some '60s folk and rock scene survivors have morphed into a modern-day version of the grizzled bluesmen/women who they emulated during their youthful days; for a perfect demonstration, listen to the last few albums by Bob Dylan. Others have essentially always sounded older and tougher than their miles on the odometer, including singer Eric Burdon.
On 'Til Your River Runs Dry, his first album of new material since 2006, Burdon's voice has acquired a few more rough edges but remains as powerful and expressive an instrument as ever. Better still, he and his co-writers have come up with a set of original material to live up to his singing, a grouping of new songs looking clear-eyed both at the road ahead and in the rearview mirror.
The full-length had a bit of a teaser last fall, when a collaborative EP with Cincinnati garage masters The Greenhornes emerged as part of the Black Friday Record Store Day offerings. The EP's songs were all written on the fly, and showed Burdon's pipes and iconoclastic musical sensibility remains intact. I first learned the EP and LP were coming out when researching a reconsideration of the album Eric is Here in December.
Burdon's time in the public eye began five decades ago. In 1964, the debut LP by The Animals in their native United Kingdom began with "The Story of Bo Diddley," a sort of apocryphal talking blues about rock 'n roll history and the guitar man's first visit to the band's hometown of Newcastle. "Story" was a Burdon composition, and that album's only original number among blues and rock standards by John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. Today on 'Til Your River Runs Dry, it's not a coincidence that Burdon brings things full circle on that early and continuing influence with a cover of Diddley's "Before You Accuse Me" and the farewell letter "Bo Diddley Special."
New takes on Big Bad Bo aside, there's much more here to like for both longtime fans of Burdon and modern blues or rock listeners in general. Burdon has never been afraid to get political, and that's not going to change now. 'Til Your River Runs Dry includes songs about water shortages, war and climate change -- there's even a manifesto for President Obama to follow -- but Burdon offers his pronouncements without being hectoring. "Invitation to the White House," about a dreamed-of summit meeting, is the type of song that could come across as tiresome, but crosses the poltical tightrope with panache and humor. Well done.
Other tunes here take on stardom's tendency to incinerate its heroes ("27 Forever"), more personal reflections on his life ("Devil and Jesus," "Old Habits Die Hard") and even Fats' Domino's experience during Hurricane Katrina ("The River is Rising"). In addition to the top-notch songwriting, Burdon and his bandmates have kept the arrangements thankfully stripped down as well, employing the standard instrumentation of rock 'n soul: bass, drums, guitar, some B3/keys, and occasional horns or backing vocals. There's no trendy synths, no attempts at rapping, no guest star vocalists, etc. -- and the album is all the better for it.
'Til Your River Runs Dry is a very welcome return to form from one of the most distinctive singers of the rock 'n roll era. The LP package itself is very well done, too, featuring a gatefold cover and a thick slab of vinyl pressed at United. (ABKCO 8906-1, 2013)