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: 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.

Song of the Week: I Misunderstood, Richard Thompson

71mffl2kntl-_sx355_Scroll Down to Listen to “I Misunderstood” (Opens in Spotify)

Breakups are what keep songwriters in business. It’s a universal theme that can be mined for pathos, empathy, and sometimes dark humor. But most musical breakups are stereotypical, abstracted events—it’s hard to imagine them happening to real people. Of course, a certain amount of generality permits a variety of different listeners to see themselves in a song, but many breakup songs are so vague as to squash any emotional resonance whatsoever.

Part of the problem may be that songwriters are reluctant to place themselves too squarely under the microscope. Richard Thompson, luckily, is not. “I Misunderstood” is a breakup song about real people, who send mixed messages and change their minds. It carries the uncomfortable weight of real experience, and sounds like a human being wrote it, rather than an anodyne hit machine.

For me, the emotional crux comes at the end of the first verse into the first chorus:

“She was laughing as she brushed my cheek/ ‘why don’t you call me, angel, maybe next week/Promise now cross your heart and hope to die//But I misunderstood/I thought she was saying good luck/she was saying goodbye.” As Thompson repeats the refrain, you can feel the protagonist reeling from the shock of this new revelation.

Writing good material is only half the battle—you have to be able to interpret it well too. Thompson’s rich voice carries shock and a rueful smile, and his guitar playing is unusually understated but always harmonically interesting, from the main hook (a play on the so-called “Asian riff”) to the thumping, dark chord progression. Would that every breakup song was this good—but not every breakup.

 

Top Ten Songs of 2015: #5-1

Welcome back. Below you’ll find my top 5 picks for this year. No one has ever asked me how I evaluate these things, but I’ll tell you anyway. For the top 5, a song has to impress me both lyrically and musically–although the proportions are not always 50/50. I’m looking for durable songs that I can take with me into the new year and beyond.

This year, though, I’m also including a Guilty Pleasure of the Year, which is a song that I enjoyed very much every time I heard it this year, but will happily leave behind me. Will this be a permanent category in Vintage Voltage Year End lists from now on? Great question. I’ll let you know.

Building on last week’s entry, these songs are available as a Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page. This playlist now includes all of the songs on both this week’s post and last week’s (again, with the exception of Adele), for uninterrupted listening pleasure. Yee-haw!

 

  1. Whiskey and You, Chris Stapleton

Tim McGraw, the human personification of Miller Lite, recorded agruably the best-known version of this song, but Chris Stapleton, a professional Nashville songwriter, penned it—and dozens of other modern country hits. Stapleton’s album garnered a lot of praise this year, maybe because the idea of a Nashville insider finally recording his own material is a perennially popular story. The album didn’t do much for me, as much as I tried to like it, but Stapleton’s reading of this song is untouchable.
He handles the material as only the songwriter can, starting with a big, seemingly obvious choice: it’s a song about being lonely, so Stapleton recorded it with his voice and his guitar. That’s the entire arrangement. Gone are the background vocals, steel guitar, and all the other noise on McGraw’s version. Streamlining the song makes it far more impactful. Lines like “And I’ll be hurting when I wake up on the floor/But I’ll be over it by noon/That’s the difference between whiskey and you” should evoke a rueful nod from almost anyone with emotions. Because it has been distilled to its essence, Stapleton’s recording is universal and powerful. I guess that’s the difference between whiskey and Miller Lite.

 

  1. Doin it Right, STS x RJD2

A few months ago I was raving about STS’s lyrical creativity, humor, and narrative skill, and he refined all these qualities on this year’s collaborative album with producer RJD2. “Doin’ It Right” is the most accessible track on the record, and hit everything I like in a hip-hop song. It’s bouncy, hook-filled, and boasts not only a whistle hook but also a brass section. STS pulls off some excellent lyrical contortions: “It’s in the can/sugar man/Leonard, Shane or Ray Robinson/well Goddamn/like Cassius Clay/what’d he say?/shook up the world I’m a bad bad man.” The profane and awkward into, in which the narrator tries unsuccessfully to pick up a girl at his own concert, is quintessential STS. In my (very limited) experience, he’s one of the warmest, most human MCs out there right now—keep an eye on him. Actually, don’t just watch him—go out and buy his record.

 

  1. Crosseyed Heart, Keith Richards

This is probably the least surprising pick on here for anyone who reads the blog, but I couldn’t let Keith’s latest solo album go by without saying something about it. At 1:53, “Crosseyed Heart,” the shortest song on this list, but it feels to me like a complete portrait of the man at this time in his life. There’s a wonderful intimacy to the performance—it’s as if he made this song up for you while you were sitting in his library. For a man whom millions of people have experienced at a remove, this sonic distance is intoxicating. The track also signals, in a way, the final stage of the Apotheosis of Keith. Both he and the Stones have always drawn from American delta and country blues, but rarely have they created something so true. At this point in his career, Keith no longer has to sound authentic. He is the blues god that he looked up to 50 years ago.

 

  1. Sugar, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds

I don’t have any Doppler radar to back up this forecast, but I think we should expect a big soul revival moving through in 2016. Between Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (remember last week?), St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and several other bands that follow the “Singer Name and the Noun” formula, a soul storm seems all but imminent. The problem with these revivals, of course, is that so many of the bands sound the same or are too consciously retro-cute. Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds—though adhering to naming conventions—put out one of the freshest soul songs this year with “Sugar.” Lead singer Arleigh Kincheloe has great presence and magnetism and reminds me of Nocturnals-era Grace Potter with her delivery. The song’s chorus is easy enough that you can sing it the second time you hear it, and everything is so infectious you can’t help but join. These guys are worthy of a much larger audience than some of their more-popular contemporaries.

 

  1. Young Moses, Josh Ritter

I’ve known about Josh Ritter for some time, but his hushed, contemplative songs never really spoke to me. This year’s album Sermon on The Rocks, however, has turned up the volume loud enough for me to hear him. It sounds like a John Cougar Mellencamp album written by a man with an MFA, and I mean both of those descriptors in their most positive sense. “Young Moses” tells a metaphorical story of a man breaking free of his bonds. In the lyrics, Ritter blends Christian scripture, peyote, and Johnny Appleseed, a mix of religion and folklore that renders the song uniquely American, and I think, timeless. With a different arrangement, I think this song would be equally at home in a New Mexico border town or an Appalachian roots jam.

 

 

GUILTY PLEASURE OF THE YEAR: twenty one pilots, Tear in My Heart

Everything about twenty one pilots is ten years too late: their stylized nomenclature, their dyed hair/all black look, and their incredibly infectious punky dance pop. “Tear in My Heart” has a simple hook that velcros itself to your cerebellum and stays there, the way Fall Out Boy’s hits used to. Little wonder that twenty one pilots is currently signed to Fueled By Ramen, the label that at one point housed Fall Out Boy and Jimmy Eat World and still is home to Fun. and Panic! At the Disco. (see what I mean about the stylized names?)

I am also a sucker for audacious songs, and Tyler Joseph is unafraid to write some of the goofiest lyrics I heard all year. He rhymes “armor” with “carver” and “farther,” rages against the DOT, and reveals what perhaps may be the line of the year: “My taste in music is YOUR FACE.”

And none of it matters. It’s still catchy. Just goes to prove, as Joseph accurately observes, “the songs on the radio are OK.”

 

Alright kids, that’s it. Playlist is below (the first four songs are from last week’s post). Thanks for reading this year, and best wishes for a kickin’ 2016. And may I suggest a New Year’s Resolution? Buy more music.

Song of the Week: It Ought to Be Easier, Lyle Lovett

Scroll down to listen to “It Ought to be Easier” by Lyle Lovett (plays in Spotify)

“Country music is three chords and the truth.”—Harlan Howard

I hope I’m not alone when I say that I have a break-up song associated with almost every relationship I’ve been in. If you’re currently in the market for such a song, I might point you to country music. Clichés aside, country music has some of the finest songwriters going, and they’re particularly good with relationships and heartbreak. Bad country writers stick to the same tropes, but the good ones find a more nuanced view of what is almost never a straightforward situation.

Lyle Lovett is a good one.

“It Ought to Be Easier,” is a track buried in his 1996 album The Road to Ensenada, and it’s written from the point of view of someone who realizes that they need to end their relationship, but just can’t push themselves over the brink.

Neil Sedaka observed that “breaking up is hard to do,” but didn’t really talk much more about it. Lovett tackles this observation head-on, particularly in the second pre-chorus:

“And you tell me I’m the one you’re not to blame

And you tell me I make you feel the same way

And we talk in circles but we never say

It’s just out of weakness that both of us stay”

Sedaka is so vague he becomes clinical, but Lovett’s specificity seems to extend an arm around you and tell you that he (or perhaps more accurately his character) has been there too.

That’s the other beautiful thing about music, particularly in times of great emotional stress. It provides you with the knowledge that someone else has experienced and survived what you are going through. Even more than that, there is something undeniably cathartic in raising your voice together with someone who has suffered as you have. That’s the reason, I think, why song is a part of so many religions, particularly in times of need.

Those are some heavy thoughts to hang on Lovett’s songwriting, but luckily it’s solid enough to bear the weight.

Album of the Week: On the Track, Leon Redbone

Let me be clear about something: I am a Yankee. I have not spent very much time south of the Mason-Dixon line, and certainly not in summer. I therefore have no great experience with the kind of syrupy, incapacitating heat that forces you to stay on your front porch, immobile and slowly sweating as the sun rises and falls.

However, if I was in that position, this is the album I would play.

If the name Leon Redbone isn’t familiar, you will recognize him either from his appearances very early on as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, or from his duet with Zooey Deschanel on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from the movie Elf. The fact that the same man appears in two radically different generational touchstones—you just dated yourself, Dear Reader—is a testament to his quirky but enduring appeal.

In this, our post-Mumfordian era, a man who consciously dresses like he’s from the 1920s and reinterprets the Great American songbook isn’t that strange, but when On the Track came out in 1975, I imagine it was a bit shocking. The entire album featured music written 40 years ago—music that the average Saturday Night Live viewer’s parents listened to when they were kids. And though Redbone was hardly very old himself in ‘75, his renditions of these songs evoke genuine comfort with his material.

Redbone’s voice is undoubtedly the first thing you notice. He sings the way a gentle grandfather might, if this grandfather marinated his vocal chords in tobacco and had a potato permanently down his throat. For all its bizarre timbre it is a supremely likable voice, warm and full of character. Nowhere is this clearer then when he does a sort of scat singing midway between trumpet and human voice on songs like “Marie.” Redbone dubs this “instrument” the throat tromnet, and it’s the kind of affectation that a lesser talent, or a more self-conscious one, wouldn’t be able to carry off.

His voice is so mesmerizing that it quickly overshadows his guitar playing, but it too is a marvel of idiosyncrasy. He frames chords rather than playing their full voicings, and his fingerpicked approach coupled with the small-bodied guitar he favors provide a nice mid-heavy counterpoint to his voice. The double-time section in “Some of These Days” has much in common with ragtime piano—no accident I’m sure—and showcases Redbone’s deft fingering.

The arrangements are purposely low-tech and a little scattershot, again presaging the low-fi approach favored by another generation of revivalists (looking at you, Jack White). They feel intimate and warm, but it’s not an album that embraces so much as it refreshes you. If you’re sitting on that sticky, humid front porch, On the Track is a tall drink full of ice.

And that is the true beauty of Redbone’s approach. By scaling everything down and treating the material in his own humble way, Redbone removes these songs from the flash and dazzle of the stage or the concert hall, and puts them back where they belong: in people’s homes.