Song of the Week: Come Down, Anderson.Paak

0e1836c9Scroll down to listen to “Come Down” (Opens in Spotify)

“You know, they’re actually way better live.” Every music snob worth their salt has said this–whether to assert dominance in a conversation with other snobs (seeing a band live garners ultimate cred) or to lamely save face when a fellow listener is underwhelmed by a studio recording.

Neither circumstance is true in this case. Based on what I’ve seen on NPR’s Tiny Desk and other videos, Anderson.Paak and the Free Nationals do truly sound better live. Perhaps a live setting just provides a better conduit for Paak’s vim, or that live musicians have an ability to mesh more organically than a drum track. But that’s not to take anything away from the recorded version of this song, which was stuck in my head for most of last week.

“Come Down” is just as tough to pin down as Anderson.Paak himself. He’s a drummer, but also a singer, but also a rapper, just as the song is hip-hop, but also soul, but also alternative. He’s got a vocal texture reminiscent of a young James Brown, with a bright, gritty timbre. Unlike Brown, though, Paak foregoes drawn-out shouts and squeals in favor of a machine-gun attack of hard consonants–his drummer’s sense of rhythm is present in every hard “c” and “t.” His delivery is a speak/sing mix, that, along with the instrumentation and deft guitar playing in the backing track calls to mind Cake, but steeped in a cultural stew (African-American, Asian, Mexican) that is unmistakably LA.

Artists like Anderson.Paak that defy easy categorization have always been my favorites, and I hope Paak continues to add influences and rely a little more heavily on live instrumentation as he develops. In the meantime, though, I’ll be looking for concert tickets.

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Song of the Week: Sexy Weekend, Scoundrels

Scroll Down to Listen to “Sexy Weekend,” by Scoundrels (Plays in Spotify)

 

For every song about a summer romance gone right, there are at least two about summer romances gone awry. This is the natural order of things, and British band Scoundrels understands this. “Sexy Weekend” channels a healthy dose of self-pity and humor after a beach weekend gone wrong, providing an antidote to every Beach Boys song ever committed to acetate.

Scoundrels is a tight, vintage-leaning rock & roll/R&B outfit, and they certainly wear their influences on their sleeves. The track sounds like it could have been a forgotten Motown or Chess studio jam, complete with slightly out-of-tune guitars and drummer Joshua Martens’ crisp, swinging cymbal work. Like Ray Charles’ immortal “What’d I Say?” it sounds like the mics in the studio were jammed right in the band member’s faces, creating a close, sweaty ambiance that evokes un-air-conditioned apartments and anemic fans. Perhaps best, though, is singer George Elliot’s voice, which sounds uncannily like Jimi Hendrix’s. This allows this listener to indulge in a bit of musical alternative history—if Hendrix hadn’t been such a talented guitarist, he might have done something like this.

There’s a lot to like here, even if the clever lyrics may not age really well (it’s tough to reference Facebook in a way that feels timeless). I hope to hear more from Scoundrels, but won’t hold my breath—this song came out in 2012, but there hasn’t been much new music from them since.

Album of the Week: Brun, Bernard Adamus

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Scroll down to listen to the entire album on Spotify

In the early twentieth century, the barrier between “blues” and “not blues” was permeable. There was fluidity to understanding what constituted the genre such that WC Handy, Louis Armstrong, and Bukka White could all play blues and have it sound different. This flexibility allowed the genre to flourish, even as the definition of the genre became diffuse so quickly that the blues trend quickly exhausted itself.

Although the 60s blues-rock wave revivified the genre, it also, I think, is responsible for the blues’ current ossified state. In order to bring the blues back out of the margins, Eric Clapton and co. pushed the label to denote something very specific: twelve bar forms in guitar-friendly keys like E and A, with extended solos in minor pentatonic. This has been the dominant paradigm in the blues since the late 60s, and even the periodically lauded “saviors of blues music” (Stevie Ray Vaughan in the ‘80s, Kenny Wayne Shepherd in the ‘90s, and Joe Bonamassa in the 2010s,) do little more than reheat licks so old they’ve got freezer burn on them.

The blues has, by and large, become boring. If the genre is going to survive, listeners and musicians need to look back to the music’s initial, encompassing definition. We must embrace new chord progressions, new arrangements, and new perspectives, not just increasingly crusty old men wringing another note from a guitar. Blues is universal. Let’s give it a chance to be that again.

Whew, ok.

Bernard Adamus is exactly the kind of artist suited to take blues forward. He’s French-Canadian and sings almost entirely in a thick Québecois patois, but this is incidental because the feelings that saturate his 2009 debut Brun are unquestionably the blues in all its forms, from truly dejected to drunkenly indifferent and gleefully self-deprecating.

As the first bone-shaking guitar chord comes in at the 0:15 second mark in the opener “Cauchemar de Course,” this all shifts into focus. Yes, there are some elements here in common with that the most hackneyed blues songs—it’s in E minor, for example, and there is technically a guitar solo. But there’s so much more that’s peculiar. A trombone provides the bottom end, there’s no normal drum set, and the song’s chord structure totally ignores the IV chord in favor of a demonic carousel powered by the I and V chords alone. The atmosphere is one of undeniable dread; the galloping of at least two out of Four Horsemen. The same feeling motivates Skip James in “Devil Got My Woman.”

“La Question À 100 Piasses” sits in a similar raw emotional space, evident in Adamus’ vibrato and sloppy vocal control, at times reminiscent of Professor Longhair. But we’re even further afield in this track than we were on the opener. The drummer is playing a breakbeat, and most of Adamus’ lyrics are, well, rapped. Hip-hop/blues crossover is logical: both are highly vernacular forms with repetitive musical structures, one from the beginning of the twentieth century, and one from the end of it. (John Lee Hooker’s talking blues and A Tribe Called Quest are less far removed than we might think.) Adamus isn’t breaking ground here, but what’s remarkable is that this delivery doesn’t sound gimmicky, unlike other artists who employ the technique (see: G. Love). Adamus crams so many words into the bar that he resorts to this delivery only out of need—because of the narrator’s paranoia or overactive brain or sense that he must share all of this information while he still can.

The excellent “Le fou de l’ile” veers even further into this territory, with beatboxing and a repeated slide guitar figure. Together these elements call to mind Beck’s “Loser” and Ben Harper’s “Steal My Kisses,” although Adamus likely has more in common with Beck than Harper. Lyrically, this track also features a uniquely Canadian hybrid of English and French, and Adamus freely switches between the two languages for emphasis or to make rhymes fit. These songs aren’t the blues as most listeners know them, and yet, they can’t be anything else.

When Adamus does revert to the forms and structures that sound most like the blues we’ve come to accept, he holds his own with the best of contemporary interpreters. On songs like “Les Raisons” and “Acapulco” Adamus’ grit and slightly theatrical intonation convey a wry weariness, particularly on lines like “Mais bon, on a toute nos raisons” (“well, I guess we all have our reasons”). In terms of his vocal prowess, I’d say only Mike Mattison surpasses him on the contemporary scene.

Instrumentally, these more typical numbers neatly sidestep the 1960s influence of British players and even electric Chicago blues by sticking to resonator guitar, pianos, and brass, restoring a sense of warmth and intimacy to the blues. In the 60s, that feeling got lost at Budokan, Royal Albert Hall, and sports arenas across the planet, as large venues made sounds increasingly sterile. It’s not that the blues must be an intimate music, but it should have the option, and Adamus restores a sense of scale with these songs, even (particularly?) in the nonsense numbers “Le Bol” and “…De Toilette” which feature off-key group vocals and a fair amount of fumbling.

Adamus brings variety back to a genre that for the better part of half a century has been rigidly defined. Although he’s not the only one leading the charge for a more encompassing definition of the blues, he personifies the main tenants of what the blues will need to move forward as a living art form. He freely hybridizes, allows his music to have a sense of scale, minimizes solos and puts the focus back on a feeling and on a groove. And although Canada is maybe not the most foreign place in the world for an American listener, Adamus still proves an important point: this is music that can be made anywhere by anyone, and that’s where the blues is most at home.

Song of the Week: 1612, Vulfpeck

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Scroll Down to listen to “1612,” by Vulfpeck (Opens in Spotify)

This band grooves so damn hard it’s a felony offense. They are so firmly in the pocket they might as well be lint.

The bass tone in the intro tells you everything you’re going to need to know about where this song is going—if you don’t like in the first five seconds, just shut it off. They combine the best of two different sub-genres: the earthy baby-making music of James Brown and his bands, mixed with some slight intergalactic weirdness straight from the P-Funk mothership.

Guest vocalist Antwaun Stanley turns in such a joyous, texturally-rich performance that you swiftly forget he’s singing about, like, the unlock code to his apartment/heart or something. In no other genre do the actual words you’re singing count for less. In fact, these are just shy of ridiculous, but that only adds to the tone here, particularly the way Stanley deadpans “Frank Sinatra.”

It might be a surprise to learn that the rest of this band is so white that you would lose them in a snowstorm, and so unbearably hipster that they probably only consume non-GMO chia-soy lattés. All of this is incidental, because they attack the music with a great attitude and serious musicianship that never feels overly derivative. James Brown is assuredly in Funk Heaven, and he is looking down from his groovitudinal cloud at Vulfpeck and smiling. Now go check out their new album, Thrill of the Arts.

Song of the Week: Billets Doux, Django Reinhardt et Le Quintette du Hot Club de France

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Scroll down to listen to “Billets Doux” by Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France (opens in Spotify)

I’m almost certain there are no recordings of Django Reinhardt singing, but when he emerged on the jazz scene in the 1930s, he indisputably represented a new voice.

To understand how important he was, try to imagine what jazz looked like in the 1930s. Not only was it insanely popular dance music with a rebellious edge, like rock & roll or hip-hop later in the century, but it was almost exclusively played by Americans (generally African-Americans) wielding trumpets, trombones, and maybe pianos.

Reinhardt and his group, the Hot Club Quintette of France, turned all of this on its head. They didn’t have any horns, or even a piano. Instead, they had three guitars, an upright bass, and Stéphane Grapelli’s violin. They played relentlessly fast, catchy music with attitude and swagger—not meekly imitating American sounds, but boldly pioneering new ones. Their style of music—called “hot swing” or “gypsy jazz”—was the punk rock of the jazz world at the time, thanks to its relentless tempos, slightly contrarian attitude, and guitar-centric approach.

“Billets Doux” (“Love Letters,” in French), is a quintessential example of the group’s style. The first half of the song is a slow, danceable swing, with Reinhardt’s tasteful, sympathetic playing laid over top. But by 1:14, the tempo has cranked way up, and the group plays with an unbridled joy that I think is still palpable more than 50 years later. The speed of Reinhardt’s phrase at 1:25 is fast enough to make Van Halen think twice, and by the time Grapelli takes his solo, the group is swinging so hard that they being to rush the tempo a bit—a classic symptom of excited, happy musicians. If you’re having a hard time understanding what “swing” is, listen to the backgrounds around the 2:00 mark: the rhythm has an unbalanced momentum to it, pushing relentlessly but happily forward. That was Django Reinhardt in a nutshell.

Song of the Week: Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries, Blaze Foley

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Scroll down to listen to “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries,” by Blaze Foley (Opens in Spotify)

People don’t seem to write many songs about omelettes, or beef carpaccio, but cheeseburgers and French fries have inspired more than their fair share of songs. Maybe this is a leftover from rock & roll’s early obsession with cars and thus drive-ins, or maybe it’s because touring musicians have consumed many a lukewarm Big Mac on the road at 1am. I actually listened to this song enough times on Tuesday that I physically craved a hamburger for lunch.

The kicker is, of course, that this song is only tangentially about cheeseburgers (or French fries, for that matter). Blaze Foley pens an ode to individuality and carefree living, two things he certainly knew a lot about. He was a quintessentially creative and self-destructive songwriter who operated on the fringes of the outlaw country scene in the 1970s, and briefly lived in both a tree house and his station wagon.

What impresses here is not only his deft picking, but how easily he conveys his charisma with his deep voice (shadings of Sean Rowe). This full-band arrangement is irrepressible, and seems custom-made for a morning summer drive. The lyrics dispense most of their wisdom in couplets rather than verses, and all of that wisdom has tongue firmly in cheek. “Don’t go skiing cause I can’t ski/but that kind of thing never did bother me/so it shouldn’t be botherin’ you” is my favorite.

Album of The Week: The Best of Trojan Rock Steady, Vol. 1

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Listen to “The Best of Trojan Rock Steady” by scrolling down (opens in Spotify)

If you live in a snowy place, like I do, let me make a suggestion: listen to more Jamaican music this winter. It’s an island with a wonderfully rhythmic and diverse musical past, and nothing kicks winter blues faster than music from a place many of us identify with eternal summer.

I understand if you’re a little gun-shy on Jamaican music—if you feel like you just can’t hear a Bob Marley song again without flashing back to college. But reducing an entire nation’s musical output to one (admittedly pivotal) figure would be like only listening to Elvis when you wanted to hear some American music. There’s a heck of a lot more out there, and if you had the time and the cash, you could happily spend a lifetime diving thorough musty stacks of 45s in some Kingston record store to discover it all. (And by “you” in that preceding sentence, I do, of course, mean “me.)

That’s why Trojan Record’s “Best of” series is so great: these discs provide a crash course in part of Jamaica’s musical history. Each album generally centers around a particular theme or genre, and provides a great diving board to help you plunge into a different sound.

The Best of Trojan Rock Steady vol. 1 is my favorite so far. Rock steady was a musical precursor to reggae popular in the mid 1960s. It was a little less frenetic than the ska music that preceded it, and a lot of reggae artists, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, played rocksteady before they began to develop reggae. What this means is that you have a familiar rhythmic structure, but with enough differences to draw your ears in: exquisite vocal harmonies, great horn lines, and more than a pinch of Motown influence.

Most of the names on here aren’t ones you’ve likely heard before, but it hardly matters. The performances are uniformly excellent and singularly quirky, from The Ethiopians’ subtle sound effects on “Train to Skaville”—produced by the singers themselves—to the mindlessly catchy hook of The Jamaicans’ “Ba Ba Boom.”

Of all the gems on the album, Phyllis Dillon’s song “Perfidia” sparkles brighter than the rest. Not only is it the only track on the album with a woman singing lead, but it’s also written in an almost absurdly poetic, refined register: the refrain is “Oh perfidious one, goodbye.” Listen to the way the expected major chord progression skews minor at 0:28, the way Dillon says “sock it to me, baby” just before the break. What about that weird spoken bridge? Bob Marley can’t top that.

Besides the perpetual motion of the upstroked guitar parts, these recordings all share this great analog warmth. They sound earthy and a little dusty, sort of squishy and fuzzy. You can hear the limits of mid-60s Jamaican recording technology, and I love that. This is a collection that oozes atmosphere.

I think there’s so much here to listen to, and it’s a refreshing change from Legend or whatever other Bob Marley album you automatically reach for. The album will help steer you in the right direction if you want more of this sort of thing—Desmond Dekker and Lee “Scratch” Perry are both essential names that you may have missed in the shadow of Marley.

But the sun’s out now, so crank up the heat and slap on some tanning oil: summer’s here to stay.