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.

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.

 

Album of the Week: Damn the Torpedos, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

If there’s one artist that dances around the fringes of this blog without ever getting his full due, it is unquestionably Tom Petty. He makes an appearance every now and then, but has never gotten his own blog post.

And that’s just not right, because he’s one of the musicians I admire the most. He succeeds at the most difficult part of rock & roll, which is making the same six chords sound completely different every time he plays them. He is relentlessly innovative within fairly tight harmonic constraints, but has been churning out hits since the mid-70s. Stop to consider for a moment that “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” one of his most iconic songs, came out in 1993.

Damn the Torpedos is a masterclass in Petty’s sand-blasted style. There is almost no fat anywhere on this album, from the boldly spare cover on through.

“Refugee” is so embedded in the cultural consciousness that it’s tough to get any critical distance on it, but it is perhaps the quintessential introduction to the band’s style. Petty and the Heartbreakers, especially on this song, are a very treble-heavy band, and I think that makes Benmont Trench’s organ all the more important. It provides a more expansive, meaty sound that prevents the band from sounding brittle, especially as Petty squawks out the chorus.

“Here Comes My Girl” wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming out of the Brill Building in the early ‘60s. The narration gives it this great girl-group feel—like a less-tragic “Leader of the Pack”—and I love how much sonic space there is on the track. To help understand what I mean by that, listen to this song and then listen to “Down to the Waterline,” by Dire Straits, which was released a year earlier. Both songs have this really dry, trebly sound, but “Here Comes My Girl” sounds expansive while “Down to the Waterline” is quietly but insistently in your face.

There is one major gripe I have with this album, which is that it falls victim to the gimmick of putting bits of nonsense in between tracks. It’s nice in that it gives every song a little room to breathe, but I always wish I could cut out the first twenty or so seconds of tracks like “Even the Losers.” Band mythology has it that they went in to record this song without a chorus, and Petty wrote it on the spot.

“Shadow of A Doubt (Complex Kid),” is my favorite track on the album. This song has such incredible energy, which is interesting because it’s not particularly fast. The guitar figure that prominently features in the first fifteen seconds is a Keith Richards signature lick, but he always plays it about twice as fast (listen to “Brown Sugar”). So the fact that Mike Campbell plays it more slowly suspends the listener’s ear—you keep waiting for the second part of the figure to come, driving the song forward. The tension derives more from the rhythm than from the notes, and I think that might be part of Petty’s secret. He doesn’t need to use more chords because he knows other ways to create the tension a good song needs. Subtle, but effective.

I’ve always loved the back-alley feel of the intro to “You Tell Me” (just like the video for “Refugee!”). The descending piano figure coupled with the yowling slide guitar give it a great cinematic feel. It’s one of the Heartbreaker’s finest moments on the album, and they sustain this menace throughout. It’s a needed change to the palate at this point in the album and all the more effective because of it.

The album’s closer, “Louisiana Rain,” is its only misstep. This country ballad might have worked fine with a more finessed vocal delivery than Petty can muster, but it would also be hard to overcome the clunky lyrical image of rain pouring out of the narrator’s ears. The whole thing is just a little bit self-indulgent, which no song on an album like this can afford to be.

Just like the titular torpedo, this album works best when it delivers a quick, concentrated, and devastatingly efficient blast of rock & roll—something that was increasingly difficult to find in the late 70s. There are no terribly elaborate intros, no overly lengthy guitar solos. It’s more refined than a punk record, but still pulses with the same vitality, and it’s understandable why Petty and the Heartbreakers were first grouped in with the New Wave movement. But at its base, the music Petty was making here evolved out of the early 60s rather than the late 70s. Nevertheless, it’s solid, timeless music. Like sharks, crocodiles, and the Rolling Stones, Petty and the Heartbreakers have survived because they’ve remained simple and deadly. Can’t ask for much more.

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.

Album of the Week: Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones (Side 2)

Aaaand we’re back. Let’s delve into side 2 of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed, their finest moment as a band and one of my favorite records ever. If you’re (Brian) jonesing for more Stones, check out Matt Fogelson’s review of Exile on Main St. here.

Side Two

6. Funk and soul drummers will occasionally talk about a groove that they “can’t turn loose.” What they mean by that is that the rhythm has a momentum of its own, and the player seems to lose control. They zone out and the physical act of producing those sounds takes over. I’m pretty sure that’s what happens on “Midnight Rambler.” It is a blues locomotive. It’s not as clever as the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but it’s not meant to be. While the Beatles got more cerebral over the course of their career, the Stones, if anything, got even less. Like a crocodile, that de-evolution has allowed them to survive.

7. “You Got the Silver” was the first time Keith Richards had ever been given a full lead vocal on a Rolling Stones album. That in and of itself is fairly remarkable. By 1969, Mick Jagger was certainly established as the only lead singer of the Rolling Stones, and to give Keith his own lead vocal almost seems against the rules. Which, luckily, is also very rock & roll. And it’s a good thing they chose to break the rules, because this is perhaps one of the most empathetic vocals on the album. Keith doesn’t have a good voice, but he has one that is true and full of pathos. The Stones are not generally a great band for lyrics, but these are some of the most well-wrought on the album: “Hey baby/What’s in your eyes/I see them shining/Like airplane lights.” Or a lyric as simple as “You got my heart/You got my soul/You got the silver/You got the gold.” It’s a sensitive, perfectly pitched performance, which builds up into a rocking coda.

8. “Monkey Man” begins with nebulous piano/guitar interplay which vaguely echoes “Gimme Shelter” before Keith Richards and Charlie Watts push it aside with a literal one-two punch at 00:21. Guitar and drums are in the driver’s seat until the bridge at 2:35, which sounds huge and orchestral, despite the fact that no new instruments are introduced. Mick Jagger cuts the bridge short at 3:13, with a re-entrance so pained you can hear the spit on the microphone. Playing around with the sonic space of this track—really dry, close mic’d guitars vs. the lush, expansive piano sounds—creates a great give and take, almost like the track is expanding and contracting as it goes along. It’s not anything new, but it is thoughtful and well done.

9. Finally, inevitably, we get to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It is the loudest, most decadent, most complex song of the lot. The use of the choir is sublime and subversive—turning the Man’s institutions against him—the French horn is beautiful, and the rest of the band in fine form. The little details never fail to impress me in this tune, like the way Mick over-enunciates his “t’s” in the first verse, mocking the choir, or how the choir fades out as the organ fades in on the final vamp. I think it’s some of producer Jimmy Miller’s finest work, hands down. “Get What You Want” has been called the Stones’ response to “Hey Jude,” and that’s certainly evident. But, again, while the Beatles get more complex throughout the song, the Stones again get more elemental, stripping the song to its barest elements before building it back up.   Most importantly, it contrasts with Let It Bleed‘s opening message. The album begins on a dark, uncertain note, and over the course of the next half-hour goes through jilted love and serial killers. But its final message is one of dogged hope and practical optimism. I can’t think of a better way to end the album—and the decade—than that.

Let it Bleed is a guide to rock & roll in all the forms it was and ever will be: the symphonic, the gutbucket, the poignant and the sexy. I come back to this album again and again because to me, this is what the music is supposed to sound like. Please bury me with a copy.

Album of the Week: Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones (Side 1)


I wanted to start a little dialogue on what makes the Rolling Stones so great, so I challenged Matt Fogelson of Fine Tuning to talk about his favorite album, Exile on Main St, while I talked about Let it Bleed. Matt writes a hell of a blog, and you should check out his thoughts here.

Why are the Rolling Stones the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World? Is it because they’re all old as dirt and still touring 50 years after they first got together? No. Is it because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have transcended their human forms and become archetypes in their own lives? No.

It is simply because they play rock & roll better than any other band. They are not the fastest, they are not the most talented, and they are not the flashiest. But as a band, they have the best handle on what rock & roll music is supposed to sound like: organic, slightly sloppy. Rollicking, a touch boozy, hopped up on sex and cigarettes. They are the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World because they may actually be the Only Rock & Roll Band in the World.

The Beatles played rock & roll, but not much after Rubber Soul. Led Zeppelin played rock—rock & roll’s heavier, angrier cousin. But the Rolling Stones have always just done rock & roll, and on this one album, 1969’s Let it Bleed, they not only played rock & roll, but played it with all its possible shadings: melancholy country, speed-freak blues, symphonic excess.

It is my favorite Rolling Stones album, and maybe even my favorite album ever.

And when I say it’s my favorite album, I mean that both a set of songs and as a physical object: the disc, the cover art. The cover is weird, to say the least. Cake toppers in the shape of the band, a clock, pizza. Hmm. Then flip to the back. The whole arrangement is wrecked. Record broken, tape pulled out, cake toppers scattered all to hell. One slice pizza, one slice cake removed. The message is clear: take your twee, ordered existence and shove it. Oh, and give me a slice of that damn pizza.

Then, the inside sleeve, black ink printed on lavender paper, a color so delicate that it can’t help but seem decadent. And what does it say, after the credits and right under the “boys in the back room?” All caps, bold type: THIS RECORD SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.

Before we even get to the music, the Stones have just done a master class in rock & roll aesthetics. It is a both a sneering, over-the-top, caveman product coupled with a self-consciousness, chummy and informal.

Side One

1. “Gimme Shelter,” the album’s opener, has rightly been pegged as one of the 60’s definitive songs. It captures the zeitgeist at the end of an era, where innocence and optimism were starting to give way to darker impulses and excesses—rape, murder, as background vocalist Merry Clayton screams. What I think is a little under-celebrated about this track, though, is the intro. It actually seems to fade in, which is an unusual choice even today, and gives the listener the impression that they have opened a door and interrupted an elemental something that has always been in progress.

My favorite moment, though, comes at 3:03. Right after Merry Clayton’s famous voice crack at about 3:01-3:02, you can hear Mick Jagger in the background go “Whoo!” (Listen on headphones and turn it up—might take you a couple passes, but I promise it’s there.) That’s the kind of organic, slightly sloppy detail that makes this album such a winner.

Right around the time of Let It Bleed’s release. Brian Jones, second from left, would die soon after the album’s completion. Conspiracy theories galore abound.

2. The next song cuts a beautiful contrast to the scope and power of “Gimme Shelter.” That’s another part of this record’s appeal, at least for me: each track presents something a little different from its predecessor, and that contrast heightens the appeal of each new song. “Love in Vain” is one of the most sensitive, intimate performances the Stones ever laid down. It’s not so much a rock & roll song as pure country blues, a tribute to rock & roll’s roots and just one of the ways that the Stones manage to keep touch with those elements on the record. The Beatles put out Abbey Road just days before Let it Bleed was released, and from this microcosm, it’s hard to imagine two more different records—“Love in Vain” is resolutely traditional rather than modern.

3. The case of “Country Honk” is a curious one. It would appear to be a re-working of “Honky Tonk Women,” which was released in July 1969, but in reality, this country-rock version was recorded first, back in March. After “Honky Tonk Women” was released as a single, this prototype version found its way onto Let it Bleed. Why?

The simple answer is that it was probably intended as album filler. But its inclusion offers a great window onto the band’s creative process, and plays around with the notion of an “unplugged” version a good twenty years before MTV started using the term. It’s an atmospheric track that almost convinces you that it was recorded on a Mississippi street corner, an illusion helped by another great off-the-cuff Mick Jagger performance in the introduction.

4. When I first deciphered the lyrics to “Live With Me” in my tender pre-teenage years, I knew without a doubt that this was not one I should play in the car with my parents. This song is unrepentantly dirty, with a nasty, strutting groove. The bass intro alone is enough to loosen your belt, and you expect to discover a hickey on your neck by the time the song explodes in a fearsome Bobby Keys saxophone solo. Like some much of this album, it’s a lesson on another part of rock & roll’s DNA: sex is ingrained in the music (just look up the origins of the term “rock & roll,” why dontcha?), and the Stones provide a potent reminder here.

5. If I have to admit that there’s a weak song on this album, I’ll throw “Let it Bleed” to the lions. Like “Country Honk,” it was probably intended as filler. It’s fine, but not exceptional, and seems like it was written just so the album could have a title track. There is, though, one redeeming moment. The lyric “I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement/when you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea” has always struck me as a weird and beautiful piece of imagery. I think it’s something about the contrast of metal and tea—inorganic and organic. Make of it what you will.

Phew! That’s it for side one–tune back in next week, and I’ll flip the album over and discuss side two…serial killers, monkeys, and a boy’s choir await!

Album of the Week: Too Much Fun, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

There’s a school of thinking that says in order to find out if you like an artist, or to develop an appreciation for one, you need to pick an album, any album, and jump right in.

But what happens if you start learning about Van Morrison by listening to Astral Weeks? What if, God forbid, you try to develop a taste for the Rolling Stones by starting with Their Satanic Majesty’s Request? You’ll get a false reading: Astral Weeks is a hard album to wrap your head around, even for diehard fans, and Satanic Majesty’s is just plain bad.

Enter the greatest hits album. They’re the perfect gateway into a band’s back catalog, (and I’m sure the 2 or 3 record label executives left on the planet are vigorously nodding), and allow you to get a feel for an artist’s entire career rather than just one moment. But with some bands, I find you don’t need much more than the greatest hits album. And that’s not a criticism–sometimes you just hit gold on the first try. I love this album, and I can’t imagine I’ll find another one by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen that I’ll ever like more. In fact, I listened to this on a car ride to Connecticut last week, and I sang along with every word. Every last one.

Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967, and enjoyed decent popularity for the next 10 years or so. Michigan might seem like a weird place for a country band, but then Commander Cody was definitely a weird country band. Rather than straightforward outlaw country or the polished Nashville sound, the band was rooted much more in Western swing, boogie-woogie, and early rock & roll, and they delivered it all with manic energy and giant ‘70s mutton chops. There’s definitely a dose of hippie sensibility mixed up in there too, from their infamously wacky cover art to their country laments about running out of weed (“Down to Seeds and Stems Again”).

Most of the songs on the disc are covers of songs by artists that I’ve never heard of. Say whatever else you will, but the band had a fantastic ear for a forgotten gem, and they were adept at taking old songs and reinvigorating them for a new audience.

The obvious place to point you is track three, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which was the band’s biggest hit. If you like Cake and John McCrea, George Frayne’s spoken delivery won’t bother you a bit. Even if it does, there’s so much to keep you entertained here that you won’t focus on it for long. Apart from the explosive riff, which is so hard that even the great Bill Kirchen doesn’t even play it clean every time (check the sour note at 0:54), there is some truly innovative playing from fiddle player Andy Stein and steel guitarist West Virginia Creeper. Between the two of them, they produce all the sound effects on the track—squealing tires, police sirens, horns.

Yep, that’s a country band alright.

The band’s version of Eddie Cochran’s “20 Flight Rock” is another keeper, propelled by Andy Stein’s bleating baritone sax and Bill Kirchen’s glassy-toned solo, which keeps the rockabilly spirit of Cochran’s version but amps it up with a full-band sound. For me, it’s the definitive reading of this song—the one I heard first and the one I keep coming back to.

“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)” probably sounds much more outré today than it did when Tex Williams and Merle Travis first recorded it in 1947. Lyrically, it’s not particularly pro- or anti-smoking, but instead makes the point that it’s an awfully inconvenient habit: “them nicotine slaves they’re all the same/at a pettin’ party or a poker game/everything’s gotta stop when you smoke that cigarette.” This is Commander Cody and the Airmen at their best: a tight, full-band sound, layered instrumentation that veers off into jazz (the tricky interval leaps around the 3:00 mark), and a slightly naughty sense of humor.

Speaking of, the next track, “Everybody’s Doin’ It” features the f-word twenty-four times throughout the track—not something you’re used to hearing in an otherwise-forgotten, rather racist country song from 1937, but the band hits it with gusto (though they thankfully leave the racist bits out). The real star, though, is Andy Stein’s perfect intro solo, which, when combined with the steel guitar backing him, sums up the strange musical fusion that is Western swing—part country, part jazz.

To be fair, these songs are about the most clichéd country tropes out there. There’s plenty about women, a few about various vices, and a few about trucks. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s easy to brush these songs off as not particularly inspired, and some are downright cringe-worthy if you go into them with the wrong attitude. “Mama Hated Diesels,” for example, reveals a tragic tale about a broken family and the hard existence of the long-haul trucker. There’s crying, a spoken interlude, and a dead mother. But the song is so over the top, so tawdry, that you can’t help but set the music snob hat aside for a minute and just weep in your Miller High Life. It’s true country cornball, and you can either brush it off or bask in its full B-movie glow.

Cornball or not, ironic or not, I take a real pleasure in these songs and the way this band plays them. I don’t know if I’d call the album “Too Much Fun” per say, but it’s certainly close.

 

 

PS–If you’re jonesing for more, head on over to Medium.com, where another Commander Cody fan (don’t worry, he’s from Texas, so he’s legit) and I wax philosophic about Commander Cody & co.

 

Album of the Week: Middle Brother, Middle Brother

This is the best rock & roll album to come out in the past five years. It may not be the most groundbreaking or the best-known, but for me it is the purest distillation of what rock & roll is. It’s an album that is boozy and crude in some places, frustrated and lonely in others, propelled by guitar solos, backbeats, and background vocals. It’s not over-produced, and no one sounds like they’re trying too hard. But that doesn’t mean the songs don’t pack a wallop. In fact, they hit harder because they sound organic and vulnerable. Middle Brother sounds like you’re sitting in on a particularly good jam session in someone’s crappy apartment, where everyone has played with everyone else for years and you got handed you a drink when you walked in.

If you’re familiar with a certain corner of the rock neighborhood, the names here will be familiar. Taylor Goldsmith, John McCauley, and Matt Vasquez all play in other bands (Dawes, Deer Tick, and Delta Spirit, respectively). Those other bands are good, but I haven’t heard much out of them that can rival Middle Brother. It’s the rare supergroup that manages to have a distinct identity outside of their members’ other projects. There are overtones of a Dawes record, or a Deer Tick album, but at the end of the day, it’s a Middle Brother album and nothing else.

Matt Vasquez’s “Blue Eyes” is the song that always catches me first. There’s wiry electric guitars right up front with piano for sonic balance and a bass that pulses but doesn’t drive. It’s the kind of mid-tempo rocker that you don’t hear much anymore outside of old Neil Young records. For me, though, it’s Vasquez’s lyrics that keep me coming back. He has a creative way with the most tired rock & roll tropes: “I’ve been looking for some time/in a world full of pennies for my dime/but it ain’t easy to find/a girl like you to be mine.” And like the best lyricists, he has a talent for providing sparse description that allows the reader to fill in the blanks, ultimately producing more powerful images than he could write. “She’s a Southern girl without a drawl/she’s a good girl who wears black bras/the only one who could make me crawl/but she’s too sweet to force me.” If you want an argument for rock & roll as poetry, you might start there.

The album starts in a state of melancholy, but “Middle Brother” (no, not the band, no not the album, but the song) reminds us of two things. First, that life is not all pining over lost loves, and second, that a good record needs variety if it is going to satisfy. This track starts with time-tested elements—bass lines, handclaps, and tambourines, and boogies with them all over the place. The guitar solo is Chuck Berry-inspired, with double stops and chromatic slides, and the piano break is pure barrelhouse. The song doesn’t need a rhythm guitar or much of a drumbeat to maintain momentum—it’s like a weird perpetual motion rock & roll engine. The lyrics are about a total loser who manages to get through life even though he brings everything crashing down behind him. He’s the kind of guy you can’t help but like, even though the back of his junky ’78 GTO is filled with beer cans.

It’s worth pointing out that another ingredient for a great rock & roll record is the ability to pull stylistic influences from different places without slavishly copying that style of music. “Thanks for Nothing” could be a lost country song from the ’70s, while “Someday” has a great Motown feel to it, a pinch of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” and an early Beatles harmony. “Portland,” the only cover on the disc, could pass for a folk song, but John McCauley, who sounds like he eats cigarette butts, gives it the same ragged edge the original had. Goldsmith rounds out the backing vocals, giving great texture and contrast to the track’s vocal section.

This looks like maybe I took it, but I promise I just found it on the internet.

And as fun as songs like “Someday,” or “Me Me Me” are, it’s true that darker feelings are never too far away on this record. “Mom and Dad,” a McCauley number, provides a frank look at the grind of touring: “Mama gave her camera to her little star/all she gets are pictures of hotels and bars/no Big Ben/no Statue of Liberty.” For all the mythologized freedom of the open road and the rock star lifestyle, the main character fully lives “in other people’s hands.” “No control, no lack of shit for free,” McCauley sings, just before a brooding, distorted guitar comes in. The irony is that the only balm is the same thing that causes the pain: music.

Finally, inevitably, we get to “Million Dollar Bill.” Goldsmith previously recorded it with Dawes, but it comes into its own here. It is without exaggeration one of my favorite love songs of all time, quiet, mournful, bittersweet. The band does the right thing by dividing the lead vocal among all three singers, which creates musical interest and speaks to the theme’s universality. It’s a simple song, devoid of the big guitars and bass lines that you find on the more upbeat tracks. Like a gemstone, it remains unadorned and beautiful.

I have listened to this album a lot since a friend first gave it to me in 2011. I now have it on pretty much every medium except for cassette tape, and that’s only because they didn’t make one. I have shared its songs with friends and with lovers, in cars and in dorm rooms up and down the eastern seaboard. I even shared them with two strangers on a street corner last weekend, when they asked me what the song I’d just finished playing was and where they could hear it again. That’s the kind of reaction I aim for since I wrote the first Vintage Voltage post a year ago today. I hope it’s worked.

 

Album of the Week: Heavy Chevy EP, Alabama Shakes

WARNING: This is one for the truly devoted crate-diggers among you. I discovered these songs on a bonus 45 that was included with my vinyl copy of the Shakes’ debut album–I don’t think it’s available separately. Good luck! We now return to your regularly scheduled program:

No one who has heard their album Boys and Girls can doubt that Alabama Shakes know how to rock. But they have never sounded as fierce, as frenetic, as they do on this three-track EP. Here, their influences are a little more clearly on display, with a great mix of early rock & roll/R&B sounds.

“Heavy Chevy” begins with Brittany Howard’s voice turned up to 10. She has the rawest voice in popular music today—putting her in Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thornton territory. Seriously. The band comes in with a fantastic energy that owes more to punk rock than some of their more contemplative album cuts. It’s one of those songs where you don’t necessarily understand all of the words but don’t need to in order to know that it’s about boys and girls (hey, what a great album name!) and proving that you’ve got what everyone else doesn’t.

“Pocket Change” has a great early 60’s pop sound, complete with the requisite organ part and a guitar riff that is a distant cousin of Mungo Jerry’s classic “In the Summertime.” It’s light fare that might have worked well on the album as a bit of a breather from some of the heavier stuff, both lyrically and musically. Maybe it’s a little derivative, but oh well.

“Mama” has a classic early rock & roll structure, with slapback echo on the guitar and a straight ahead drumbeat, but also boasts a really funky breakdown and Howard’s great vocals. What’s so great about this song—and about this EP more generally—is that Alabama Shakes can combine a bunch of vintage musical elements in ways that wouldn’t have happened when these styles were developing in the late 50s. Big Mama Thornton wouldn’t have played with Carl Perkins no matter how much each of them may have wanted to. So really, the songs on this EP represent a progression and natural outgrowth of the source material; modern music with vintage antecedents. And that’s maybe the hippest thing of all.

Album of the Week: A Dotted Line, Nickel Creek

It’s no secret that I like mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile. Until recently, though, I had only experienced him in a few limited contexts—like the excellent trad bluegrass album Sleep With One Eye Open. Some of his more experimental stuff, though, like Goat Rodeo Sessions or even the Punch Brothers, is a little too avant-garde for me.

I knew that Thile first got his start in a band called Nickel Creek, but it wasn’t until their new album A Dotted Line came out a few days ago that I really bothered to dig in.

The first thing you’ll learn about this album if you read anything about it is that it’s the band’s first record in nine years. This isn’t surprising given that as far as I can tell, Nickel Creek was (pardon this pun) disbanded in 2007 while the three members—Thile, along with fiddle player Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins—played in other projects and groups.

Critics generally lump Nickel Creek into the bluegrass genre, but in comparison to Sleep With One Eye Open, there’s very few of the genre’s touchstones present here. The songs are harmonically complex, played at moderate tempos, and lack the piercing vocalizations that spring to mind when the word “bluegrass” gets bandied about. Yet there’s something in the album’s acoustic instrumentation, the rich multi-part harmonies, and Eric Valentine’s clean and unobtrusive production that makes the album’s heritage apparent. You can tell what type of music they were raised on.

This tension between old and new is apparent in the first half minute of “Rest of My Life.” The opening guitar riff owes as much to American roots music reinterpreted through the Rolling Stones (cf. “Sweet Virginia” or “Sweet Black Angel”) as it does to Scruggs and Flatt. The harmonies appreciably flesh out the sound, but the cello chops during the bridge at 1:58 are more Goat Rodeo Sessions/Punch Brothers than trad bluegrass—although they evokes the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” as well.

Sean Watkins sings the two strongest songs on the album: the exquisite “Christmas Eve” and the joyful “21st of May.” “Christmas Eve”’s interval jumps in the melody probably make it a demanding song to sing, but Watkins handles them effortlessly enough that the listener can focus on his mournful longing rather than his technique. The chord progression is also consistently surprising, and moves in directions far beyond typically simple bluegrass patterns. It’s a well-crafted song that feels much longer—in a good way—than its 4:23 run time.

“21st of May” is just about as traditional as it gets on this album, with a undulating mandolin/guitar riff, and quaintly Evangelical lyrics. “They laughed when Noah built his boat/then cried when came the rain/and they mock me now but I will float/on the 21st of May” is hands-down my favorite chorus, again because of Watkin’s sincere delivery. He’s an empathetic vocalist and a clean guitar picker too—just listen to that riff.

Thile rivals Watkin’s for heartbreaking vocals on “Love of Mine,” but his most important contributions seem to be compositional rather than performed. He’s not slacking, but neither is he stealing the spotlight, as he tends to—consciously or not—with his other projects. This is actually really refreshing, particularly in light of Thile’s significantly higher profile than the Watkins siblings. Here, he’s the mandolin player in Nickel Creek, and not Chris Thile, MacArthur award winner and savior of mankind. His musical fingerprints are all over the songs, though, and I can’t help but think the tense reading of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” was Thile’s idea.

Sara Watkins’ fiddle provides a strong voice on the album’s two instrumentals, “Elsie” and “Elephant in the Corn.” She has a warm, rounded tone, and favors gilding lines over choppy ones. She’s equally adept at playing counterpoint when the other instruments have the melody, an essential skill for any violinist to learn, as the instrument doesn’t lend itself particularly well to rhythm playing. Her singing sounds like an extension of her violin playing, though on this album her brother is the stronger vocalist.

I think A Dotted Line’s strength lies in its accessibility. A listener can jump into the album at any point and immediately have a sense of what’s going on, while more experienced ears will marvel at the songs’ complexity and depth. I have to confess that I bought this album on a bit of a whim, and was pleasantly surprised by it. Although really, I shouldn’t have been. After more than 20 years working together, one Grammy and multiple nominations, I should have know (to paraphrase the oddly prescient Smucker’s corporation), “with a name like Nickel Creek, it has to be good.”