John Oates: Arkansas Review

John Oates is best known for being half of the beloved ’80s band Hall and Oates. Hall and Oates represent the epitome of pop. They’ve sold millions upon millions of records. They had six number one hits. Michael Jackson copped to “borrowing” a riff from their “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” for his own “Billie Jean.” You don’t think of either Daryl Hall, who sang lead on most of the duo’s songs, or Oates, as particularly bluesy, but Oates is a blues fanatic and on Arkansas, he lays down some blues-influenced, country tracks that show a side very different from his Hall and Oates work.

Arkansas has a country-inspired blues vibe, sort of like The Band or the Grateful Dead. The record began as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, the country blues singer who could haunt you for days with his soulful voice and raw guitar playing. Oates has a few tracks featuring just voice and guitar, but there’s nothing raw or rural about the album. Instead, Oates presents his takes on some acoustic blues standards, plus two originals.

Arkansas features country instruments like mandolin and pedal steel. Oates is backed by the Good Road Band, which gives the tracks a consistent sound. Oates’ voice is raspy and weathered, making it perfect for this kind of music. The songs have a smoothness that while not necessarily blues-authentic, makes sense for a person who spent much of his music career crafting big hits. He’s obviously used to a certain amount of polish.

He establishes the tone of the record with Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More,” an acoustic, finger-picked country blues. The guitar work is pretty and the vocals are strong, where Blake’s were both hauntingly desperate. But Oates isn’t trying to present himself as a genuine country blues artist. He’s appreciative of the genre and is using Arkansas to put his own imprint on that music.

“My Creole Bell,” by the aforementioned Hurt, is also stripped down, with a decidedly bluegrass vibe, courtesy of mandolin and some electric guitar. It sounds like something the Dead might have tackled while making American Beauty. It’s a pretty read that manages to find a different-yet-familiar angle on an old song.

Oates isn’t always as faithful, though. His cover of Hurt’s “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” performed here as “Pallet Soft and Low,” is adult contemporary blues a la Eric Clapton circa Journeyman (that album, by the way, continues to represent the gold standard for rock/pop artists trying to transition their work into adulthood). Oates’ take features a sweet melody but it’s more rhythm and blues than pure blues.

Arkansas also features some Oates originals. “Dig Back Deep” is uptempo and poppy, hinting at his ’80s past. The song is bluesy, in a Loggins & Messina, “Your Mama Don’t Dance” kind of way, but Oates’ voice keeps the song from degenerating into cheese. The track is organic and sincere, with his band doing a great job of providing a tether between Hall and Oates and the newer Americana-flecked work.

Oates’ previous solo work has had lots of blues nods, but this is as raw and as bluesy as he’s gotten to date. It’s nice to see an artist like Oates unafraid to thoroughly explore a genre that might not appeal to all of his fans. The album stands on its own, but is probably mostly of interest to Oates fans, who know his blues work, or Hall and Oates fans, who want to hear a semi-familiar voice performing a different kind of music.

The Review: 8/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– Pallet Soft and Low
– My Creole Bell
– That’ll Never Happen No More
– Dig Back Deep

The Big Hit

– Dig Back Deep

Review by Steven Ovadia

Buy the album: Amazon | Amazon UK

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