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Link Wray was one of rock & roll’s first bone fide guitar heroes, and his speaker-shredding buzzy chords were as distinctive a sound as anyone conjured up in rock’s early years. So Link’s old fans were thrown for a loop when, in 1971, the man made a comeback after several years along the margins with a self-titled album that set aside his big slabs of fretboard fuzz in favor of a loosely tight fusion of country, blues, and roughshod folk-rock. Recorded in a homemade three-track studio fashioned in an abandoned chicken coop on Wray’s Maryland farm, Link Wray lacks the muscle of the man’s legendary instrumental sides, with acoustic guitar, piano, and mandolin anchoring these sides as often as Link’s electric, and there’s a down-home mood here that lacks the switchblade intensity of Wray’s most famous music. But the rough passion of “Rumble” and “Rawhide” certainly carries through here, albeit in a different form; the plaintive howl of Wray’s vocals isn’t always pretty, but it certainly communicates (Wray lost a lung to TB in 1953), the best songs speak eloquently of the hard facts of Wray’s early life as a poor Shawnee child in the Deep South, and there’s a humble back-porch stomp in this music that’s heartfelt and immediate. (And Wray does serve up some primal hoodoo guitar on the closing cut, “Tail Dragger.”) Link Wray didn’t go over big with the man’s old fans and failed to win him many new ones, but it’s an honest and passionate piece of music that’s a fascinating detour from the music that has largely defined his career, and has aged better than the vast majority of the country-rock product of the early ’70s.

Largely recorded the same time as Link Wray’s self-titled 1971 comeback album, Beans and Fatback was more playful and harder-rocking set than the country- and blues-flavored album that announced Wray’s return to active duty. The loopy title cut started the album on a jew’s-harp-infused jug band note, and “I’m So Glad, I’m So Proud” was exactly the sort of showcase for Wray’s trademark rumbling guitar that the previous album lacked. Elsewhere, songs such as “Hobo Man” and “Georgia Pines” (the latter a rewrite of Leadbelly’s In the Pines”) followed the roots-oriented pattern of Link Wray, but with a stronger backbone and a lot more wallop; if both albums sound like they came from a studio housed in a chicken shack on a rundown Maryland farm, Beans and Fatback seems to have been born during a Saturday night rave-up, and goes a lot father toward fusing the rowdy howl of Wray’s early instrumental hits with the back-to-the-land flavor of his more personal 1971 set. If Beans and Fatback suffers in comparison to Link Wray, it’s in the lack of the deeper and more emotionally resonant undercurrents that carried the 1971 album; as good as these songs are, they don’t have the same impact as, say, “Fire and Brimstone” or “Take Me Home Jesus.” But as a pure listening experience, Beans and Fatback is plenty satisfying, and offers more rock & roll bang for the buck than Wray’s other work from this period. Virgin’s original LP release of Beans and Fatback also included a free piece of dried fatback as a “bonus” — yummy!

-Mark Deming, allmusic.com

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LINK WRAY (1971)
BEANS AND FATBACK (1973)
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