By Conor Hooley
All forms of music age. They stagnate. While artists working within such genres don’t have to reinvent the wheel, the challenge is still to create something fresh, or at least interesting. But the blues trio Mark Van Ark and The Shakes take the opposite route with Speedy Monkey.
The group’s twelve-track release is entirely reverent to the norms of olden day blues, so if you’re a traditionalist then this is worth a listen. Otherwise, the devotion is its undoing. Speedy Monkey’s unapologetically throwback style does have a certain kind of charm, but it doesn’t last.
Van Ark takes the forefront here, which is a mixed blessing. His guitar work is beyond reproach and greatly displayed on tracks like “You Can’t Hide From the Blues,” “Baby What’s Wrong” and “Insomnia.” He is a gifted player, and his efforts on that front are the highlight of the album.
But he also sings and, frankly, he doesn’t have the vocal presence to carry an album. Lyrically, there is rarely an authentic-sounding moment. Van Ark doesn’t stray far from time-honored blues clichés: troubles with women, vices and other unassailable melancholies. But it sounds as if he’s singing from a point of obligation, not genuine emotion. It’s vapid and staid: We hear what we do because that’s what Van Ark thinks blues music is supposed to sound like. It’s piety in its least imaginative form.
The resulting product is a thoroughly predictable work: in its topics, music and ultimately, its blandness. Regardless of how familiar the format may be, you can still meet (and, ideally, exceed) expectations without simply going through the motions.