Rosco Gordon's 2002 death passed largely unnoticed, except by obsessive fans of early rock and R&B. A one-time Sun recording artist, Gordon wrote hits for Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and pioneered a kind of lazy-beat soul sound that later drifted to Jamaica and became ska. After decades out of the spotlight, Gordon released an album in 2000, and he'd been working sporadically on a follow-up when he died. More than two years later, No Dark In America collects the fragments of Gordon's final sessions, with the pianist reinterpreting some old material and offering his own positivist response to Sept. 11.
The response comes through most clearly on the album's title track, a piece of rote walking blues elevated by Gordon's exhortation to "dry your eyes" and "face tomorrow." Better still are low-stakes novelty vamps like "Cheese & Crackers" and "You Look Bad When You're Naked," where Gordon's career-long fascination with unsteady rhythms pays off in songs where the erratic structures matter more than the lyrics. With accomplished supporting players like former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer and Nashville jazz saxophonist Jeff Coffin providing full-scale R&B orchestrations, Gordon allows himself to play loose. He takes turns on piano and electric guitar (the latter most impressively on the smooth "Early In The Morning"), and sings songs like the coarsely exotic "A Night In Rio" and the string-soaked, weepy "Girl In My World" as though he were humming to himself. The past-midnight-at-a-downtown-club arrangements play against Gordon's casualness most alarmingly on "You Don't Care About Nothing," where the rich instrumentation regularly gives way to Gordon idly plunking away at his keyboard, in no hurry to get back to the song.
Gordon's influence may not be well known, but it extends to just about every roots band with a regional kink. For example: The Bluerunners, which has varied the pace of Southern boogie with woozy zydeco rhythms for more than a decade. The band's new Honey Slides is named for the fried, sweetened marijuana snack that Neil Young and his band consumed during the recording of On The Beach, and the album has some of Young's crude beauty. Even songs that stay mired in the bayou, like "Working Man's Zydeco" and "Coulee Rodair," hold an offhanded, blissed-out qualitythe accordion swells and the slide guitar half-dance, half-stumble around each other. And on the murky country waltz "Valse De Grand-Pere," the draggy fiddles and nasal snatches of French make Louisiana seem like a foreign country within American borders. In a country packed with polished blues-rock bar bands, it's funny how the musicians who can barely hold it together leave the strongest impression.