NYC experimental rock outfit The Mortal Prophets (helmed by John Beckmann) recently announced the forthcoming release of their debut LP, Me and the Devil, due December 9. On the record, Beckmann joined forces with Irish musician and producer William Declan Lucey (Rubyhorse, Leftbank), with whom he developed the record’s atmospheric, noisy sound. Additionally, it features collaborations with Morphine’s Dana Colley, vocalist Aoibheann Carey-Philpott, and more.
Today, Beckmann and The Mortal Prophets have shared two more singles off their forthcoming record, “Crossroad Blues” and “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Each track takes inspiration from classic tracks that helped mold America’s musical landscape, described as “contemporary reinterpretations.”
As Beckmann wrote on the first of the two new tracks:
“‘Cross Road Blues’ (also known as ‘Crossroads’) is a blues song written and recorded by American blues artist Robert Johnson in 1936. Johnson performed it as a solo piece with his vocal and acoustic slide guitar in the Delta blues-style. The song has become part of the Robert Johnson mythology as referring to the place where he supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical talents, although the lyrics do not contain any specific references.”
On the next single, he continued:
“‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ is a traditional blues song that was popularized by Delta blues musician Big Joe Williams in 1935. Many cover versions followed, leading to its description as ‘one of the most played, arranged, and rearranged pieces in blues history’ by French music historian Gérard Herzhaft.
‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ is likely an adaptation of ‘Long John,’ an old folk theme which dates back to the time of slavery in the United States. Blues researcher Paul Garon notes that the melody is based on ‘Alabamy Bound,’ composed by Tin Pan Alley writer Ray Henderson, with lyrics by Buddy DeSylva and Bud Green in 1925. The song, a vaudeville show tune, inspired several other songs between 1925 and 1935, such as ‘Elder Greene Blues,’ ‘Alabama Bound,’ and ‘Don’t You Leave Me Here.’ These variants were recorded by Charlie Patton, Lead Belly, Monette Moore, Henry Thomas, and Tampa Red.”
Continuing on the premise behind the upcoming record and its inspirations, Beckmann wrote:
“These songs are the essence of America’s primal scream, they are chilling, and profound in their austere beauty and directness, they are so full of tragedy and hope, lost loves, and personal and societal struggles, not much has changed in a hundred years. They are all songs that I find deeply moving and poignant. My versions are not covers, in the true sense; they are contemporary reinterpretations, it’s a poetic attempt that hopefully, people will appreciate, and I’m very proud of it.”
Earlier this year, The Mortal Prophets shared their highly anticipated debut EP, Stomp the Devil, produced by David Sisko and featuring collaborations with Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart).
Midway through making his first Mortal Prophets EP, John Beckmann had an idea: why not treat his newest rough tracks like a piece of sonic paper and invite Irish producer/multi-instrumentalist William Declan Lucey (Rubyhorse, Leftbank) to collaborate in a playful game of Exquisite Corpse?
In Beckmann’s case, his songs, a few steps away from the finish line, were shared with Lucey and he was given a simple set of rules. Lucey could add or subtract two or three tracks from Beckmann’s original files in his Cork studio. “It was a fluid process — an unusual way of assembling an album.”
Lucey also knows quite a few talented musicians who were invited to participate in this open-ended artistic experiment. Take Beckmann’s synth-laced cover of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” for instance. Thanks to the spry percussion of Nate Barnes and easygoing sax lines of Morphine co-founder Dana Colley, it feels alive — a robust, red-blooded strut towards a blinding sunset.
Elsewhere, “Pretty Girl in the Pines” (a.k.a. the seminal folk song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” which was famously covered by the blues musician Lead Belly, bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, and Nirvana) takes on a new, slightly terrifying life alongside Lucey’s head-rush hooks, Joe Carey‘s rip-roaring harmonica, and Joe Philpott‘s sinewy pedal steel.
And then there’s Me and the Devil‘s final duet, “Lord I’m the True Vine.” One of two wild collaborations with singer Aoibheann Carey-Philpott, it finds Beckmann bobbing and weaving through her vocals, as humbled and haunted by her soulful voice as the rest of us. “The songs on Me and the Devil are especially poignant and timeless in so many ways,” says Beckmann when asked why he decided to cut a collection of covers in the spirit of his debut EP, Stomp the Devil. He continues, “I had to get these songs out of my system because they touched me so much. The lyrics are a form of incantation.”
Now that Beckmann has cleared this conceptual deck, he has one more record in mind for the coming year: another experimental album tentatively called Dealey Plaza Blues. A co-production with longtime Daniel Lanois collaborator Alexander Krispin, it’s set to feature a fearless, experimental sound and original material that brings Mortal Prophets’ opening trilogy of trippy blues tracks to a close with a deft left hook. “Life is about unknowing yourself,” explains Beckmann, “and so it is with making music. It’s about the journey, and I know that will be discernible in the music as new songs and new albums are released over the next few years.”For now, listeners can look forward to the bold, shape-shifting songbook of Me and the Devil. It’s a softer, more poetic record reflecting Beckmann’s love of everything from primitive blues to the raucous punk of Suicide to the ethereal ambient sequences of German electronica. Whether you’re wading through the swamp rock of “Death Letter” or watching the final curtain go down on “Cross Road Blues,” it’s as much a mantra for Mortal Prophets as it is a whirlwind jaunt of songs that span a century — a crash course in the music that moves us on a molecular level.